After struggling through long stretches in two exhibition games and again on Tuesday in the season-opener, the No. 16 Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday finally looked connected and in control for most of the game as they took command in the first half and never looked back while rolling up Gardner-Webb, 86-69, at Bud Walton Arena.
Junior big man Connor Vanover, who did not play in Arkansas’ 74-61 win over Mercer in the season-opener on Tuesday, started and finished with 19 points (7-of-12 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 4-of-4 from 3), 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 assists in 17 minutes. Vanover had not scored in double-figures in nine months (he had 12 points in the Hogs’ 86-81 overtime win at Missouri on Feb. 13, 2021).
Sophomore guard and preseason All SEC pick Devo Davis, who did not attempt a shot while going scoreless against Mercer, started and finished with 10 points (4-of-10 field goals, including 2-of-3 from 3), 6 assists, 3 rebounds, and 1 steal in 29 minutes against the Runnin’ Bulldogs.
Senior guard JD Notae had 18 points (7-of-13 field goals, including 4-of-7 from 3) and 2 steals. Senior combo forward Stanley Umude had 9 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists off the bench. Sophomore point-forward Jaylin Williams had 3 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, and 3 drawn charges.
The Hogs led by 16 points at halftime, 42-26, and stretched their lead to 31 at the 7:41 mark of the second half, 78-47.
For the game, Arkansas won the glass (39-29) and was plus-12 in second-chance points (15-3), and the Hogs knocked down 13-of-27 from distance (48.1%) to more than double up their three-point production against Mercer. Overall, Arkansas shot 32-of-68 from the field (47.1%) and 9-of-15 from the free throw line (60.0%).
Arkansas had 23 assists against 9 turnovers while forcing 15 turnovers for a plus-7 advantage in points-off-turnovers (15-8). The Razorbacks also won points-in-the-paint (34-20), fast-break points (12-3), and bench scoring (33-25).
“Probably both,” third-year head coach Eric Musselman said of the high assist night affecting great three-point shooting, two areas where his Hogs struggled until Saturday. “I thought our spacing was better … A lot of good things, but certainly the three-point shooting when your feet are set, the ball moves, I think you get better shots. JD only took seven three’s, I thought they were so efficient, 4 of 7 from 3. Then obviously, Devo going 2 for 3 as well.
“Let’s face it, Devo and JD are going from the passenger seat in the car (playing mostly off the ball) to the driver’s seat (as primary handlers). It’s different, man, it’s different. You’re gonna adjust a little bit, and I thought there was two guys tonight in particular that made strides.”
Musselman sent out Davis, Vanover, Williams, Notae, and Toney to start against Gardner-Webb on Saturday.
Two things stood out about that starting group: 1) four of those Hogs played together last year (familiarity and continuity); and 2) the big frontline as Arkansas looked to exploit matchup advantages.
The Hogs, who played all 12 scholarship players, did give up 13-of-31 shooting from 3 defensively (41.9%), the exact total they yielded against Mercer, which served as a continued frustration point for Musselman.
Gardner-Webb made 24-of-53 shots overall (45.3%) and 8-of-11 from the free throw line (72.7%).
The mostly dominant effort by Arkansas (2-0) was more reflective of a team that entered the season ranked 16th and 15th in the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches Top 25 polls, respectively.
The Hogs are now 2-0 all-time against Gardner-Webb (now 0-2 on the season), with the previous matchup coming in November 2004 when the Hogs won at home, 79-63.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs were led by guard Julien Soumaoro’s 20 points while big man Kareem Reid and guard Lance Terry each had 16 points.
Musselman improved to 21-1 against low-to-mid-major teams at Arkansas and 47-19 overall as Head Hog.
Next up for Arkansas is another home game against a mid-major school — Northern Iowa (0-2) — which will tipoff around 7 p.m. CT on Wednesday at BWA.
Vanover scored 4 quick points to put Arkansas up 11-7 early, but Gardener-Webb used spurts of 8-0 and 6-0 to grab a 21-15 lead at the 6:46 mark.
It was all Arkansas from there as the Hogs closed the final 6:25 of the first half with a dominant 27-5 run for a 42-26 lead at the break.
Vanover led the Hogs with 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks in the first 20 minutes. Davis had 8 points (including 2-of-2 shooting from 3), 5 assists, and 2 steals. Notae had 9 points and 2 steals. Williams chippef in 3 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists.
Arkansas dominated the first-half board work (23-14), and the Hogs held the Runnin’ Bulldogs to 3-of-13 shooting from 3 (23.1%). Arkansas had 9 assists against 5 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.