FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas began play in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday afternoon needing two wins to advance to a winner-take-all regional final against Missouri State on Monday night.
By the time the top-seeded Razorbacks finished off those two wins, they had turned what was supposed to be an evening at Baum Stadium into a nearly overnight affair — ending an epic 11-10 win over the Bears at 3:10 a.m. local time Monday morning.
What made the contest the most memorable of the NCAA Tournament so far wasn’t that is took six hours to play, including a 1-hour, 25-minute rain delay. Nor was it the fact the two teams restarted the game — in the third inning — at 12:35 a.m.
Standing out above all else at the Fayetteville Regional was that easily more than 1,000 of the original paid crowd of 9,038 fans in Baum Stadium were still on hand when Arkansas pitcher Evan Lee struck out Missouri State’s Justin Paulsen in the rain to end the game.
It might have been more than 12 hours after the Razorbacks were originally scheduled to start their first game a day earlier, but the win was well worth the wait.
“That was one of the greatest games I’ve ever been a part of,” said Arkansas’ Jared Gates, who hit a two-run home run to put the Razorbacks up 11-8 in the bottom of the eighth inning.
As great as the game was for casual observers and anyone from Arkansas, the length of the two games posed a certain number of challenges for the Razorbacks.
During the delay in the Missouri State game, the team ate what leftovers it had from its pregame meal prior to its first game — more than seven hours earlier. Hunger, though, wasn’t a problem for the Razorbacks.
At least not until following the win over the Bears.
“Right now, I’m really hungry,” Lee said at a postgame news conference at 3:35 a.m. “I’m looking for a Whataburger hamburger or something.”
For all the excitement into the early morning hours, the game wasn’t without its share of tense moments.
After having already defeated Oral Roberts in an elimination game earlier on Sunday — a game that started nearly an hour and a half late because of heavy rain — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn wasn’t too keen on restarting the game with the Bears early Monday morning after rain had halted play in the third inning.
Bears coach Keith Guttin, though, was fine with continuing into the wee hours — particularly because his players were rested after avoiding the loser’s bracket thanks their 5-4 win over Arkansas on Saturday.
Those roles were reversed when the rain returned in the eighth inning. After Missouri State took an 8-7 lead in the top half of the inning, Guttin said home plate umpire Ramon Armendariz called for the tarp to once again be put on the field.
With the game approaching 3:00 a.m., it was a decision that would have all-but certainly ended play for the night (morning) and left the two teams to pick up play later in the day.
However, an animated Van Horn had other ideas — lobbying Armendariz hard from the Razorbacks dugout for the game to continue.
“In the top of that inning, it seemed like we had to play defense in the rain,” Van Horn said. “… We wanted to play.”
Play they did, with the Razorbacks scoring three times in the bottom of the eighth to retake the lead. And all the while, a frustrated Guttin watched from the dugout — on the same field he stood on when Missouri State lost in the super regionals to the Razorbacks two years ago.
After the inning, several of the Bears barked at the umpires about the difficulty of continuing to play in the rain. After the game, Guttin made his feelings about the decision — or lack thereof — known while doing his best not to get suspended for critical comments.
“I don’t think games should be decided in the rain at 3 a.m.,” Guttin said.
Regardless of any emotional or physical fallout from the lengthy day for Arkansas and game for Missouri State, the two teams will meet again Monday night with a spot in next week’s super regionals on the line.
This time around, both are hoping to finish the game on the same day they start it.
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