Joe scores 21 in his return as Hogs end 5-game skid, 78-68, against Missouri at BWA

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Photo Courtesy: University of Arkansas Athletics

FAYETTEVILLE — How do you want your Joe? For patient Arkansas Razorback fans, it was served hot with lots of sugar on Saturday as sophomore shooting guard Isaiah Joe, playing for the first time in six games due to injury, went off for five made three-pointers while scoring a game-high 21 points to help the Hogs halt their 5-game losing skid with a 78-68 win over Missouri in front of an announced sell-out crowd of 19,200 at Bud Walton Arena.

Arkansas (17-10, 5-9 SEC) also snapped a 4-game home losing streak  — dating back to a 75-55 win over Vanderbilt at BWA on Jan. 15 — as the Hogs won for just the third time in their last 11 games. Mizzou (13-14, 5-9 SEC) had won 3 of its previous 4 games before faltering in Fayetteville.

The two teams split their season series as Mizzou won at home in overtime, 83-79, two weeks ago.

For the Razorbacks and their fans, the win keeps the team on the “Bubble” for a potential NCAA tournament at-large bid in March.

“We understand we’ve got some of the most passionate fans in all of college basketball,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said of Hog fans finally being rewarded with a win after the recent 5-game slide. “It’s not just our sport. You look at what gymnastics had last night at their event. You can go over the baseball stadium and see. I mean, we have incredible fans. So they’re passionate.

“We’ve talk to our guys a lot just about, ‘Hey, man, when you’ve got 18,000 people or whatever, we want them coming back. You’ve got to get wins. You’ve got to play as hard as you possibly can.’ Our team has battled. I mean, I know we’ve come up short of late and haven’t played very good basketball the last five to seven games … Having said all that, I get it. It’s all about wins and losses. It’s not horseshoes where you get close and it matters. So we got our guy (Joe) back and he made big shots for us and he defended, we’re a different team.”

Joe had missed the previous 5 games — all Hog losses — spanning 18 days since having an arthroscopic procedure to his right knee on Feb. 4.

He started and though the Hogs fell behind 24-11 before he registered his first points (on 2-of-2 free throws at the 9:15 mark of the first half) since Jan. 29, Joe scored 10 points to pace two 10-0 Arkansas runs that paved the way for a 35-33 Hog halftime lead, then he fueled a 10-3 spurt to start the second half with 5 points and an assist on a three-point shot as Arkansas raced ahead by nine, 45-36, with 16:04 to play.

Mizzou would fight back, but the combination of Joe and sophomore guard Desi Sills — he scored 14 of his 17 points in the final 12:59 of the game — proved to be a reliable answer time and again for the Hogs.

In his return, Joe received multiple ovations from the fans as he played 38 minutes and finished 6-of-12 shooting, including 5-of-10 from 3, plus 4-of-4 free throws for his 21 points to go with 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal. His final three-pointer at 1:10 doubled Arkansas’ lead from three to six points, 74-68.

“I thought he was great,” Musselman said of Joe in his return. “We’re a whole different team with him. Look, we all know it’s been a struggle without him for a variety of reasons. We just can’t afford a guy like Isaiah not to be in our lineup. I thought he was awesome. He opens up 3-balls for other people as well just being out there. I thought he moved really well. I thought he got a little bit winded at certain stretches. But look, we won a game at home in double digits and got one of the best players back in uniform tonight in the conference.”

Joe said he was glad to be on the court again.

“It was good being back,” said Joe, who came in as Arkansas’ second-leading scorer (16.0 points per game) and second in the SEC in made three-pointers. “I think they were going to monitor my minutes but once I got in the flow of the game I felt great out there. It just felt good to be back out there with my brothers, my teammates. Being on the bench (over the previous five games) I had to be a cheerleader. Right now to be back out there and contribute, it’s a great feeling.”

Joe’s patience on offense paid off, and once he got on the board midway through the first half he said he felt good.

“Oh, yeah, to see one go in, man,” Joe said. “All I needed was to see one bucket go in, a free throw, a layup, a three … doesn’t matter. I just needed to see it go in the hole. And my teammates, they rely on me. They trust me and I trust them.”

Defensively, Joe put the clamps on Missouri’s leading scorer, Dru Smith, in the final 9 minutes of the game, walling off drives and contesting shots while holding Smith to 1-of-4 shooting and 3 points in that span.

“He took a charge,” Musselman said of Joe’s defensive presence. “We haven’t taken a charge since the eighth grade picnic, since he’s been out. We took a charge and Isaiah took it. We missed some, too. But he did a great job. He’s just so long. He’s got good lateral foot speed, he can keep guys in front of him. Then he can challenge shots with his length.

“I didn’t know how he was going to really move in live action over an extended period of time. But to put him on Dru Smith tells you the confidence we have in his ability to try to get stops for us.”

After not scoring in Arkansas’s 73-59 road loss at Florida on Tuesday, Sills played 32 minutes off the bench and shot 6-of-8 from the field, including 4-of-6 from 3, and 1-of-1 on free throws for his 17 points to go with 3 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal.

Sills made all three of his second-half three-pointers in the final 7:45 of the game with the first two of those extending one-possession leads to two-possession advantages. His fourth and final triple extended Arkansas’ lead to 71-63 with 1:33 to play.

“I thought Desi was great,” Musselman said. “Any time you take a player out of the starting lineup you’ve always got to have concern. How is a player going to react? Is he going to have the right mental frame and come out and produce?

“Certainly, look, there’s probably not too many players in the country that if they come off the bench and get to play 32 minutes, they’re probably happy. He played 32 minutes, which is a lot of minutes for a player in a 40-minute college game. He produced. Four 3s, 4 of 6 from 3, and again, it wasn’t just Isaiah’s 5 of 10 from 3, but he opens up shots for other people because he attracts so much attention.”

Joe’s and Sills’ collective 9-of-16 from 3 was the catalyst for Arkansas’ overall 12-of-25 effort from distance (47.2%), which turns out to be their best shooting percentage from behind the arc on the season when they make at least 10 triples.

As good as Arkansas was shooting the three-ball, the Hogs’ national-best three-point field-goal defense limited the Tigers to 4-of-21 from distance (19.0%).

“How much are we going to lose the rebounding battle by every night?” Musselman rhetorically asked. “If it’s 10, we’re probably in pretty good shape. So where do we get an advantage? And we haven’t had the advantage without Isaiah of the three ball. That’s how we get our separation. Other team coming into games and say, ‘We’re going to get separation against Arkansas by pounding them on the glass.’ Our separation is we lead the entire country in defending the three ball. And we’re pretty good when we make three-ball shots.

“But to lead the country in a category is really, really hard, and when you look at the analytics of our sport, the three-ball is a difference-maker for a lot of people. We’ve done a better job than anyone in the country at defending the three and tonight I thought we did a great job. It was a concern, because we wanted to keep the lane a little bit more compact than we have in the past. In the past we’ve just been taking away threes, and then that gives up dribble drives. Tonight we told our guys, you’ve got the stop the drive, you’ve got to give great gap help. But you better get back to the three balls as well.”

Arkansas won the turnover battle (13-8), but more significantly the Hogs were plus-12 in points-off-turnovers (19-7). Missouri dominated the glass (36-23, including 10-2 in offensive rebounds), but the Tigers were only plus-3 in second-chance-points (5-2).

The Hogs shot 25-of-53 in overall field goals (47.2%), while Mizzou started the game 8-of-11 from the field before finishing 24-of-56 (42.9%).

Joe and Sills had help with three other Hogs scoring in double figures while making key contributions.

Senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr., scored 14 points (6-of-12 field goals and 2-of-2 free throws) to go with 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in 39 minutes.

Junior guard and the SEC’s leading scorer, Mason Jones, had 12 points in an off shooting night from the field (2-of-9, including 1-of-4 from 3), but he made 7-of-8 free throws, including 4-of-4 at the line in the final 47 seconds of the game to ice the win. Jones also contributed team-highs in rebounds (8) and assists (4) to go with 1 steal in 29 minutes.

Senior forward Adrio Bailey played 31 minutes and had 11 points (4-of-8 field goals, including 1-of-3 from 3, and 2-of-3 free throws), 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block before fouling out with 1:26 to play.

Like Arkansas, Mizzou has been dealing with its own injuries as second-leading scorer Mark Smith and big man Jeremiah Tilmon once again did not play against the Hogs as both have missed most of SEC play.

But the Tigers were nonetheless formidable, and a 5-0 run in a 9-second span made things interesting as Mizzou pulled within 71-68 with 1:17 to play. That’s when Joe’s fifth and final three coupled with Jones’ four made free throws slammed the door for good on the Tigers.

“They’re a different team,” Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said of Arkansas with Joe back in the lineup. “He’s a good player. He’s an all-league guy. He’s a guy when it’s all said and done that will play for 15 years, whenever that is. Not many guys can shoot the ball like that. He can stroke it. We have to do a better job. On a couple, he made tough shot, and we have to do a better job of making him work for baskets. Same for Desi. Desi played well. He made three 3s on our breakdown, but he made them.”

Freshman forward Kobe Brown led Mizzou with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 1 steal in 28 minutes. Sophomore guard Xavier Pinson finished with 15 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, and 5 turnovers in 31 minutes. Dru Smith finished with 15 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in 38 minutes.

Mizzou started sizzling hot shooting the ball, making 8-of-11 to begin the game en route to grabbing a 24-11 lead.

But with Joe and Jones combining for 10 straight points — collectively their first points of the game — the Hogs closed within 24-21.

The Tigers used a 5-0 mini surge to increase their advantage to 31-23, but another 10-0 run capped by Joe’s second three-pointer gave Arkansas a 33-31 lead.

After a Missouri score that tied the game, Joe made two free throws at 0:23 to put the Razorbacks back up, 35-33, which stood as the score at halftime.

Joe and Whitt led Arkansas in first-half scoring with 10 points each.

Up next for Arkansas, the Razorbacks remain at home for a Wednesday matchup against Tennessee at BWA before going back on the road to play at Georgia on Saturday, Feb. 29.

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