By Kevin McPherson
FAYETTEVILLE — If the Arkansas Razorbacks are to throw their name in the hat for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid in March, the first steps in that direction are taking care of their homecourt while navigating toward the top half of an ultra-competitive SEC.
Arkansas checked both boxes Tuesday night at Bud Walton Arena with a 70-60 win over Georgia, marking the Hogs’ second consecutive league win at home while moving them into a tie with No. 22 Mississippi State for 8th place in the 14-team SEC.
Sophomore wing Mason Jones had a game-high 23 points to go with team highs in rebounds (6) and assists (4), sophomore point guard Jalen Harris chipped in 13 points, and the Hogs’ four frontliners combined for 28 points and 11 of the team’s 14 blocked shots, which is the most erasers ever in an SEC game by an Arkansas team and tied for fourth-most in school history.
Arkansas (12-8, 3-4 SEC) has won 2 of it’s last 3 games including back-to-back SEC wins for the first time this season after suffering the first 4-game losing streak in Mike Anderson’s eight seasons as head coach of the Razorbacks. The Hogs’ have won three in a row against Georgia (10-10, 1-6 SEC), and they’ve won 7 of the last 9 meetings between the two schools.
“I’m just really proud of our guys’ effort defensively,” said Anderson, whose Hogs held their second consecutive SEC opponent to only 60 points. “I really believe our defense is starting to trend up. We’re probably a little ahead defensively of where we are offensively. But thank goodness that our defense is starting to play at the level that you’ve got to play in the SEC.
“We didn’t get off to a good start. I just really feel like our guys were a little fatigued to start it off. The bench is so important to what we do, and we saw that on display again. We saw it in the Texas Tech game. We saw it tonight.”
Freshman guard Isaiah Joe broke a 52-all tie with his only basket of the game and his first 3-pointer in two games at the 5:06 mark that fueled a 10-2 run for a 62-54 Arkansas lead with 2:08 remaining. From there, the Hogs would make 8-of-12 free throws to ice their 10-point win.
After giving up 284 points in three straight losses, Arkansas’s mix of man-to-man and match-up zone defense has now held two consecutive SEC opponents to 60 points, and counting the Hogs’ 67-64 loss on Saturday at then-No. 14 Texas Tech in the Big 12 / SEC Challenge, Arkansas has limited its last three opponents to a combined 187 points.
Georgia came in off a 98-88 home win over Texas in a game it shot 32-of-48 field goals for 66.7%, including 12-of-17 from 3 for 70.6%. But Arkansas held the ‘Dogs to 19-of-65 field goals (29.2%), including 7-of-24 from 3 (also 29.2%).
The Razorbacks were pounded on the glass 56-32 for minus-24, including 23 offensive rebounds for Georgia that fed the Bulldogs’ 17-5 advantage in second-chance-points.
Arkansas won the turnover battle, forcing 16 Georgia miscues against only 4 giveaways that led to the Hogs’ 16-7 win in points-off-turnovers. The Hogs have forced a combined 61 turnovers in their last three games. The Hogs had 6 steals to go with their record-setting 14 blocks against Georgia.
“Missed layups, we missed a lot of layups,” first-year Georgia coach Tom Cream said of his team’s offensive struggles. “We missed a lot of close, easy baskets and not just because they have a shot blocker in Daniel Gafford. We had self-inflicted wounds at the basket today and then we didn’t make enough free throws.
“We had 23 offensive boards, so when you get boards like that … we just sometimes have to realize we can go back up, but we looked at it at halftime and if we make our free throws and even a couple of layups then we’re up 10. We hurt ourselves offensively on those close, easy baskets.”
Crean also gave credit to Arkansas’s defense.
“Daniel Gafford is really good shot blocker and we missed a lot of close shots, so they’re good,” Crean said. “There are a lot of good defenses in the league and they are good, too. They bring a lot of pressure to the game and they got us some, made a couple of bad passes and a couple of guys were extremely soft with the basketball, which you cannot do against them.
“Of all the teams in the league, they’re the most that you feel you’re playing 5 vs. 6 or 5 vs. 7 because not only the way they put pressure but because of the way they run at the ball. It always feels like there’s more people out there, and that’s a compliment. I think that’s one of the reasons they’re so good is because it seems like there’s more people. But with that, we got the cuts we wanted … we’ve got to make layups. We’ve got to make close, good shots.”
The Hogs enjoyed a rare win at the free throw line. Arkansas came in shooting 64.8% on freebies, and it bettered that against Georgia with 15-of-22 for 68.2%. The Bulldogs’ came in shooting 72.8%, but managed only 15-of-29 for 51.7%.
Arkansas struggled shooting from the field in the first half, but a 48.3% effort in the final 20 minutes brought the final tally to 41.0% (25-of-61), including 23.8% from 3 (5-of-21).
Jones chipped in 1 steal and 1 block to go with his team-best 23 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in 32 minutes. It was his fifth 20-plus scoring game of the season.
Not only did Jones’ free throw with 0:15 remaining close out the scoring for the game, but it provided the 70th point that meant a buy-one, get-one free chicken offer — a promotion by a local fast-food establishment — for fans who attended the game.
“I didn’t even know why everybody was so quiet,” Jones said of his preparation for his final free throw attempt. “Then I knew at the end of the game why everybody was clapping for me. I got them free chicken. Getting back on that play, I shouldn’t have missed that first free throw because I take free throws real serious. I don’t harp on that, just know I have to get back in the gym on it. I’m glad I can give the people free chicken.”
Sophomore center Daniel Gafford played through foul trouble but managed 11 points (3-of-4 field goals and 5-of-7 free throws), 5 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 2 assists in 22 minutes.
Gafford got help inside from starting junior forward Adrio Bailey (8 points and 2 rebounds in 16 minutes), reserve sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien (3 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks in 16 minutes), and reserve freshman forward Reggie Chaney (6 points, 6 rebounds, a game-high 5 blocks, and 2 assists in 25 minutes).
There was a stretch early in the second half when Bailey and Osabuohien combined for 9 consecutive points for Arkansas, then down the stretch Gafford and Chaney collaborated for 8 points in a row for the Hogs.
Harris has now reached double-digit scoring for the Hogs in back-to-back games. His 13 points included 4-of-6 free throws in the final 56 seconds of the game.
Anderson talked at length about his appreciation for the Hogs’ bench.
“I thought they came in, Desi (Sills), Gabe, Reggie, Keyshaw (Embery-Simpson) … I thought those guys came in and really ignited some energy in the building,” Anderson said. “And before you know it our fans were in it. Then the guys coming off, I thought they turned up the intensity. Dan got in foul trouble again. One of the fouls was just a silly foul. He can’t keep putting himself in that situation, trying to go get it back. But the beauty of it is that these other guys are starting to step up.
“You look at that, I call it the quick forward position. We got of things from those guys tonight when you talk about Reggie and Gabe and Adrio. I thought Adrio played well. As a matter of fact he got robbed on one basket where it went in and he had a dunk. He was just snake-bitten on that. But he attacked the basket. I love how he played.”
Anderson touched on Joe’s big shot that gave the Hogs the lead for good, and he talked more about his team’s stingy defensive effort.
“We had guys make plays, the shot that Isaiah made,” Anderson said. “He only made one shot, and you could tell he was not himself tonight. But I love the effort of him wanting to be out there. To step up and knock that shot down that put us up three. And I think we didn’t lose the lead after that.
“But to hold a team to 29 percent, I think we had 14 blocked shots. That means we were active, and Dan had a quite a bit there in the second half. I think Dan did a great job when he came back in after getting three fouls of protecting the rim back there. And of course Reggie and Gabe. Our guys were really active at the rim. It was a good win. It wasn’t a thing of beauty, but at the same time in the SEC games are going to be like that. You’ve got to find a way to win. So we found a way to win. We found a way to defend the home court. That was what it was.”
Arkansas got off to another slow start as Georgia’s Turtle Jackson and Nicolas Claxton combined for all of the Bulldogs’ points in an 11-2 run to open the game.
The Hogs fought back with a 14-5 run to tie the game at 16. Gafford made 4-of-4 free throws in that stretch and freshman combo guard Desi Sills contributed a 3-pointer.
Jones, who accounted for 15 of the Hogs’ final 19 first-half points, made layups to give the Hogs two leads (22-21 at 5:27, and 24-23 at 4:35) before hitting a 3-pointer that tied the game at 29-all at the 0:23 mark.
Harris gobbled up a steal and crused in for a lay-in with 3 seconds remaining as the Hogs took their biggest lead into the break, 31-29. It was the second consecutive game that a Harris bucket broke a tie game to give Arkansas a halftime lead.
Arkansas trailed 41-40 in the second half when Gafford and Chaney combined for 8 points in a 12-4 Hogs’ run that gave them a 52-45 lead with 8:32 to play.
A 7-0 Georgia run tied the game at 52 at 6:23, but Joe’s triple 1:17 later gave the Hogs the lead for good and triggered an 18-8 run for the final margin.
Georgia was led by sophomore Nicolas Claxton’s 14 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 2 assists. Big man Derek Obeide had 14 points and 8 rebounds off the bench. Senior guard Turtle Jackson finished with 11 points.
Arkansas goes back on the road Saturday against No. 19 LSU at 5 p.m. with the game airing on the SEC Network.