In the preseason Jimmy Whitt, Jr., said he returned to Arkansas for his final campaign with something to prove to himself and Razorback fans — that he could compete at a high level in the SEC — and he punctuated that mission statement on Senior Night with 26 points, a career-high 15 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block to lead the Hogs over LSU, 99-90, on Wednesday at Bud Walton Arena.
Whitt had help as junior guard Mason Jones continued his SEC Player of the Year bid with 36 points — his eighth game of 30 or more points making him the only SEC player to accomplish that feat in more than 20 years — with Desi Sills (13 points), Isaiah Joe (11 points), and Ethan Henderson (career-high 10 points) all scoring in double-figures.
Arkansas (19-11, 7-10 SEC) won for the third time in its last four games in keeping alive hopes for an NCAA tournament at-large bid later this month. The Hogs split their season series with the Tigers (20-10, 11-6 SEC) as both teams won at home, and Arkansas finished the regular-season 14-4 at BWA (9-0 in non-conference and 5-4 in league games). The 99-point outing was a high-water mark on the season for the Hogs who close out SEC play Saturday on the road against surging Texas A&M, which grabbed a road upset on Wednesday, 78-75, over No. 17 Auburn.
The Hogs made 36-of-54 free throws on 35 LSU fouls — the freebie attempts and opponent fouls are both all-time high marks for Arkansas in an SEC game. The Razorbacks were only minus-5 both on the glass (40-35) and in second-chance-points (14-9) after getting destroyed in both categories (53-24 in rebounds and 26-0 in second-chance-points) in LSU’s 79-77 win in Baton rouge on Jan. 8. The Hogs were plus-5 in turnovers (10-5) and plus-8 in points-off-turnovers (15-7) while shooting 28-of-56 on overall field goals (50%) in a game that was fast-paced from the outset.
“Our guards were phenomenal — 86 points by our backcourt — and we finish the season at home the way that we should,” said first-year Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman, who also talked about his team’s resolve to stay in the hunt for an NCAA tourney bid and its preparation. “We knew we had to win tonight, for sure. I thought we had great practices. We went back to training camp practices. We normally go through the opposing team’s sets over and over. We did a little bit yesterday and a little bit today.
“But we went back to our training camp drills. We went back to shell defense. We went back to pick-and-rolls at six different angles on the floor. We switched some. We trapped some. Tracking the ball screen has been very effective for us. And we did a good job defensively again. The way we’re playing defensively is we are giving up a higher percentage of 3-point shots but we’re certainly protecting the lane a lot better than we were early in the year.
Whitt — who started his Arkansas career as a freshman in 2015-16 only to transfer to SMU where he played two seasons before returning to Arkansas — made 9-of-17 field goals mostly on his unique but now familiar array of mid-range jumpers, although he did throw down a couple of emphatic dunks while making 8-of-12 free throws for his 26 points in 37 minutes. Whitt’s third double-double in scoring and rebounding was timely, especially the 15 rebounds that helped assure the Razorbacks would not suffer another rebounding landslide against the Tigers.
“It was a pretty special moment for me for sure,” Whitt said of his career finale at BWA, the same building where his college career began five years ago. “Just thinking about my whole journey and then coming back and just being able to play like that. A win against a real quality team. I couldn’t write it any better.”
LSU head coach Will Wade had nothing but high praise for Whitt.
“Well, that was something,” Wade said. “But Whitt — I know Mason Jones gets a lot of the credit and he did a great job tonight scoring 36 – but Whitt just controlled the game with 26, 15, 5 assists. We just, for whatever reason, we can’t guard him. We couldn’t guard him at our place, we couldn’t guard him here. He seems like, I don’t know him at all, but just watching his press conference from Monday he seems like an unbelievable kid, an unbelievable person, and he deserved to go out like that on senior night. I wish it wouldn’t have been on us, but he was tremendous.”
Musselman also was impressed.
“I thought the biggest thing with Jimmy was his defensive rebounding,” Musselman said. “To come into the game against an awesome defensive rebounding team with great length and athleticism and to think he’s going to have 14 defensive rebounds. Man, I don’t know if we had 14 defensive rebounds in the entire last game that we played LSU. I thought he was focused. That’s what we talked about. We did a million boxout drills. We had four guys blocking out eight people in a circle drill we do from a defensive rebounding standpoint and he took it to heart.”
Jones — he was named SEC Player of the Week on Monday, his league-best fourth such honor of the season — was 10-of-17 shooting, including 4-of-6 from 3, and 12-of-14 on free throws for his 36 points to go with 3 assists, 2 rebounds, and 2 steals in 38 minutes.
Jones is the national leader in both free throws made and attempted, and his first of two made free throws at the 5:54 mark of the second half gave him 214 makes as he surpassed Naismith Hall of Famer Sidnay Moncrief for most made free throws in a single season at Arkansas. Jones not only dropped 30 or more points for the eigth time this season, but it was his 10th career 30-point outing (in 63 games) moving him into second-place all-time at Arkansas in career 30-point games (Martin Terry had 17 in 52 games, Todd Day had 9 in 127 games, and Joe Kleine had 9 in 97 games; stats provided by Hogstats.com).
“I think this win definitely put us back on the bubble or something,” Jones said. “You know, we’re going to take it one game at a time, so that’s the goal. We knew LSU was the next game on the schedule, so we needed to get a win to get back alive on the NCAA Tournament bubble list. We knew we wanted to come out here and play hard, and we did that. We came out, played hard, let the fans give us a lot of energy and we gave the fans a lot of energy to watch. We came out with a W tonight.
“This story is still going. God still has so many things in store for me. It’s just crazy to see the fans appreciate the way I’ve played. For them to call me an MVP is amazing. Coming in this year, who would have ever thought that fans would start calling me MVP of the season, knowing that last year I was just a role player. It’s just work.”
Joe, in his fourth game back after missing all of Arkansas’s 5-game losing streak while rehabilitating his injured right knee, made only 1-of-7 three-pointers but made 8-of-8 free throws to reach 11 points to go with 3 rebounds, 2 drawn charges, 1 assist, and 1 block in 38 minutes. Even with the low scoring night, Joe is averaging 20.0 points since his return, and he’s made 30-of-30 free throws in the 4-game span.
Sills scored Arkansas’s first two baskets — both three-pointers — en route to notching his 13 points to go with 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 35 minutes. Sills has played off the bench in Arkansas’s last four games, averaging 16.0 points per game in that stretch while shooting 60.5% from the field, including 12-of-21 from 3 for 57.1%.
Henderson made his third consecutive start and fourth in the last five games as he hit 3-of-3 field goals (two dunks and a putback) and 4-of-9 free throws for his career-high 10 points to go with 6 rebounds and 1 assist in 27 minutes.
LSU was led by senior guard Skylar Mays’ 28 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds in 38 minutes. Sophomore forward Emitt Williams had 16 points and 6 rebounds playing off the bench. Starters Trendon Watford and Javonte Smart each scored 14 points.
Arkansas typically plays in more defensive-type, grind-game affairs, but coupled with Saturday’s high-octane 99-89 loss at Georgia the Hogs have found themselves in some late-season run-and-gun fun. Against the ‘Dogs, the Hogs fought back from an 18-point deficit to close within one point late before losing by 10, and against the Tigers the script was somewhat flipped as Arkansas would build a 23-point lead only to have LSU close within seven just inside of two minutes left in the game.
Jones scored 20 first-half points as Arkansas used runs of 13-3, 9-2, and 15-2 to build a 55-34 halftme lead. Joe’s only made basket — a three-pointer at 17:41 — gave the Hogs their biggest lead at 62-39.
But LSU would successfully employ a full-court press defense to speed up the tempo while attacking Arkansas with straight-line drives to the basket as the Tigers chipped away at the lead. The Hogs were up by 17 points, 75-58, at the midway point of the second half but they missed eight consecutive free throws as LSU clawed within a single-digit deficit, 87-78, when Williams had a dunk-and-one with 2:03 to play. Then, Watford converted an Arkansas turnover in the backcourt with a quick lay-in as LSU closed within seven, 87-80, at the 1:54 mark.
But the Tigers would get no closer as Arkansas made 12-of-14 free throws in the final 1:40 to ice the win.