After experiencing a wealth of emotions during a whirlwind three-day stretch, Monty Patel wasn’t about to waste the short but much-needed time off he got Monday.
With the way Team Arkansas has performed during The Basketball Tournament, who can blame him?
The 32-year-old has guided his group to the Sweet 16 of the $1 million, winner-take-all event following a pair of close victories Saturday and Sunday in the first and second rounds of the Omaha (Neb.) Region. Today, they’ll have a chance to advance to the Elite Eight at DJ Sokol Arena when they face the Gutter Cat Gang at 6 pm in the regional finals on ESPN2.
The game will mark the first time that No. 2-seeded Team Arkansas has reached the third round of the ninth annual tournament. The furthest the team had gone prior to this year was the second round, which they did on two separate occasions. But for Patel and his players, first things first – enjoying a breather.
“Playing on back-to-back days is tough,” Patel said. “For me and the guys as a whole, it’s a good thing to kind of stretch our legs a little bit after playing two tough games. But I put a lot of pressure on myself anyway, we as a team put a lot of pressure on ourselves because we have pride in the work we do.
“We’re here to be professional about everything, handle our business and of course, win basketball games. The tournament is fun, and it feels great to be a part of it. But for us, just like everyone, it’s survive and advance .”
Team Arkansas has done both in thrilling fashion during Patel’s second straight year in the driver’s seat.
Patel, who’s set to begin his first season as a high school basketball head coach at eStem, mentioned that familiarity has been the biggest plus for the team during its current run.
“I think coaches have changed every year,” I explained. “So us being able to build relationships, and now being able to coach guys harder, be more open and honest about the things that need to be done in order to succeed, that’s big. I’ve been able to be more of a true coach to them versus getting to know them in three days and trying to figure people out.”
The team figured out how to take down two opponents in similar fashion on consecutive days.
In its opener, former University of Arkansas guard Cortney Fortson hit a game-winning three-pointer to send the team into Round 2 with a 72-69 victory over No. 7-seeded Da Guys STL. The shot capped the win under the Elam Ending format, which is a system that’s put in play when the game clock hits the four-minute mark of the fourth quarter. At that point, the clock is turned off when the first whistle is blown, and a target score is set. The first team to that point total wins.
Fortson had 16 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds while Hunter Mickelson, who also played at both Arkansas and Kansas, had 20 points and 12 rebounds.
A little more than 24 hours later, Jaylen Barford, also an ex-Razorback, led the way with 22 points in the team’s 69-63 victory over the host team, third-seeded Omaha Blue Crew. Chris Coffey, who starred collegiately at Georgetown (Ky.), added 16 points, including the winning basket, and 13 rebounds.
Today, Team Arkansas will battle the region’s top seed in what Patel anticipates will be a back-and-forth affair.
The Gutter Cat Gang, like Arkansas, has a roster dotted with standouts who’ve played internationally. QJ Peterson, a 6-0 guard who played in Turkey last season and was the Basketligaen’s Player of the Year in Denmark in 2021, had 17 points in his team’s 72-62 win over Always Us in the second round.
Patel, however, isn’t going to short-change his team, particularly after what they’ve accomplished thus far.
“Everyone talks about [Gutter Cat Gang] the Euroleague All Stars they have, but we’ve got a bunch of professionals as well,” he explained. “We’ve got an edge about us, too. You listen to guys like Cortney, guys like Barford and Jimmy [Whitt]. We don’t lose our matchups.
“We buy in on defense, and that’s where it starts. After that, we let the game take care of itself.”