Forget about talk of rust and lethargy after an 8-day layoff between games for final exams, and forget about overlooking an upset-minded mid-major opponent. Oral Roberts had proven to be a worthy, feisty team with close road losses at Oklahoma State and Wichita State, and to their credit the Golden Eagles were up 10 over Arkansas at the break on Sunday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville when the Razorbacks flipped the second-half tempo to match their rebounding dominance and pull out an 87-76 victory.
Senior combo forward Justin Smith had a monster double-double (22 points and 17 rebounds, including 10 offensive rebounds); junior combo guard Desi Sills had his own double-double (16 points and 10 rebounds); and freshman guard Moses Moody, the team’s leading scorer, tallied 12 of his 18 points in the second half to go with 7 rebounds. The trio’s collective 34 boards were 2 more than ORU managed as a team as the Hogs bludgeoned the Golden Eagles on the glass, 58-32 (including 24-7 on the offensive glass for a 22-6 advantage in second-chance points). The Hogs also narrowed the turnover margin from minus-6 in the first half to only minus-2 for the game (15-13) while playing small ball to dictate pace and attack the rim as they outscored ORU 57-26 in the final 20 minutes.
“I’d say it’s definitely a combination of athleticism and reading the ball (coming off the rim),” Smith said of his blue-collar effort on the glass on Sunday. “It’s always easier for the big guys, the forwards, when the guards come in and rebound. He (Sills) got a lot early. He kind of kept us in the game early on, just making hustle plays, getting offensive rebounds, getting putbacks.”
Arkansas (7-0) came in with a 33.8-point average winning margin — tops in the nation among teams that had played at least 5 games — and though the Hogs finished nowhere near having that kind of comfortable final cushion they have now managed to win all 7 of their games by double-digit margins. Although they’ll emerge from the weekend with the SEC’s best record, the Hogs have a quick turnaround to play one more non-conference game at home against Abilene Christian (7-1) on Tuesday before opening up SEC play against Auburn on Dec. 30 in their first road test of the season. With a victory over ACU — the Hogs’ only non-conference opponent with a winning record before getting into league play — Arkansas would match last season’s unbeaten start through eight games.
The Razorbacks improved to 11-2 in the all-time series against ORU, a private school located in Tulsa. Despite the series record, ORU typically plays Arkansas close (only an 8.5-point average final margin in the previous 12 meetings), plus the Golden Eagles had recently put serious scares into Oklahoma State and Wichita State before losing both road games by 5 points earlier this season. ORU’s 40-30 halftime lead marked the first time Arkansas had trailed at the break this season.
The Hogs used a 10-0 run early in the second half to take their first lead, 49-48, since the opening stages of the game, and after ORU used its own 6-0 mini-spurt to push back ahead, 54-49, with 11:59 to play, the Hogs took command of the game by using slashes to the basket, putbacks, and free throws while stiffening on defense to out-point the Golden Eagles 38-22 in the final 11:34.
Junior guard JD Notae started the second half in place of Connor Vanover, adding quickness to the lineup as he chipped in 15 points (including 7-of-8 from the free throw line), 5 rebounds, and 3 assists for the game. Senior guard Jalen Tate contributed 8 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists but committed an uncharacteristic 5 turnovers. Vanover, the Hogs leading rebounder (9.0 per game) and shot-blocker (3.3) coming in, finished with 3 points, 3 rebounds, and no blocks in only 9 minutes (all in the first half as he did not check in spanning the final 20 minutes).
“Oral Roberts is a well-coached team, they know their roles,” said Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman, who is now 19-1 in non-conference games as the Head Hog. “I thought we did a great job defending the three-ball. The goal was to hold them under 9 three’s, which we did. And their star player, I don’t know if you could guard (Max Abmas) any better than Jalen Tate did tonight.
“Obviously, Justin Smith on the backboards tonight, getting 17 rebounds — 10 offensive boards. Not many teams are capable of getting 58 rebounds. I thought we did a great job, especially when you talk about Oral Roberts. I think only three games so far this year have they been outredounded.”
Arkansas came in as the SEC’s best rebounding team (46.0) and Oral Roberts had been strong on the glass, too, with more than 42 boards per outing. But after being minus-2 rebounding in their last contest, a 100-75 win over Central Arkansas on Dec. 12, the Hogs had a statement game Sunday on the glass with the afforementioned dominance in overall rebounding, offensive rebounding, and second-chance points.
The Hogs were also superior in the paint where their scoring advantage was 56-22, and a big part of that success was the concerted effort in the second half to not settle for three-point shot attempts while moving the ball and finding driving lanes and pushing pace after defensive rebounds and forcing turnovers. After a dismal 2-of-16 effort from 3 (12.5%) in the first half, Arkansas attempted only 8 triples in the second half (making another 2) while focusing on getting to the rim. Arkansas shot 54.1% from in the final 20 minutes to finish the game 32-of-77 for 41.6%, including 4-of-24 from 3 (16.7%). The Hogs were 19-of-27 from the free throw line (70.4%).
Defensively, the Hogs got stingy in the final 12 minutes of the game. ORU finished 25-of-64 shooting from the field (39.1%), including 8-of-29 from 3 (27.6%). The Golden Eagles came in averaging 12.7 makes from 3 per game at a 37.1% clip. Abmas, the 6-1 sophomore guard and ORU’s leading scorer coming in (21.2 points per game), was held to 11 points (4-of-11 from the field, including 1-of-6 from 3) to go with 4 assists and 3 steals. Forward Kevin Obanor had a double-double (21 points and 10 rebounds). Former Hog walk-on, Forrest City native, and Arkansas Tech transfer RJ Glasper finished with 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists in his return to BWA. Guard Kareem Thompson had 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists, while forward DJ Weaver finished with 11 points (including 3-of-6 from 3), 5 rebounds, and 3 blocks.
Musselman started the same group of five for the 6th consecutive game: Sills, Vanover, Moody, Smith, and Tate.
The Hogs were dominant on the glass and jumped out to a 6-0 lead on the strength of an early plus-8 rebounding margin, but Oral Roberts took command from there to lead twice by 12 points (34-22 and 40-28) before taking a 40-30 lead into halftime.
Though Arkansas was plus-13 on the boards (32-19) at the break, ORU won the personnel matchups at both ends of the court in terms of playing a stingy inside-out defense (the Golden Eagles held the Hogs to 12-of-40 field goals for 30%, including 2-of-16 from 3 for 12.5%, and 4-of-7 from the free throw line) while spacing their offense through prolific scorer Max Abmas to force favorable one-on-one matchups that led to open looks and hard drives resulting in free throws (ORU was 14-of-35 shooting for 40%, including 4-of-15 from 3 for 26.7%, and 8-of-11 from the free throw line). ORU won the first-half turnovers (9-3).