FAYETTEVILLE — For those wondering which crew best demolished Mississippi Valley State earlier in the week — Arkansas or North Texas — that is debatable, but the Razorbacks answered which team was better in a grind-game on Saturday by steadily pulling away for a 69-54 win over the defending Conference USA champion Mean Green in Bud Walton Arena.
The Hogs (2-0) and UNT (1-1) combined for 41 three-pointers and 258 points while demoralizing MVSU by a combined 134-point margin (on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively), and when the two teams got together Saturday to conclude the three-team, three-game MTE (multi-team exemption event) it was Arkansas that put together the right combinations in blowing open a tight first-half affair.
The quartet of senior forward Justin Smith (18 points), junior guards JD Notae (16) and Desi Sills (14), and freshman guard Moses Moody (11) handled the scoring while 7-foot-3 Little Rock native Connor Vanover, making his first start as a Hog, anchored the interior to come up with a career-high 16 rebounds and a career-high-matching 6 blocks to go with 6 points and 2 assists in 34 minutes.
“Connor Vanover was so dominant tonight it was hard to take him out of the lineup,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said.
Arkansas has defeated North Texas in back-to-back seasons as the Hogs now hold a 16-0 record in the all-time series between the two programs. Arkansas is the only SEC team that remains unbeaten through at least two games played.
With Vanover holding down the paint, the Hogs’ perimeter defense limited UNT to 2-of-13 shooting from 3 (15.4%). Just two days ago, the Mean Green made a school record 21 triples (out of 33 attempts for 63.6%) in a 116-62 win over MVSU. But Arkansas, which had the nation’s top three-point field-goal-percentage defense a year ago, came out with something to prove after giving up 13-of-39 three-point shooting (33.3%) to MVSU in a 142-62 home win on Wednesday.
For Vanover, it was a contrast to his game against MVSU, both in style (he was more offensive weapon with an efficient game-high 23 points against the Delta Devils) and minutes played (only 18 minutes against the Delta Devils, which he nearly doubled against UNT).
With the game tied 19-all, Notae got an offensive rebound and dished to Moody for a layup-and-1, then Notae scored 7 straight points to cap a 10-0 run in a 1:50 span for a 29-19 Arkansas lead at the 4:51 mark in the first half.
Notae would later make a baseline runner with Smith and Moody combining for 7 more points as that trio would account for all of Arkansas’ final 19 points in the first half, which ended with the Hogs holding an 11-point lead, 38-27.
The Hogs opened the second half with multiple stingy defensive possessions to fuel a 9-0 run for Arkansas’ biggest lead, 47-27. The Mean Green used a couple of mini-spurts — 7-0 and 5-0 — to eventually pull within a 10-point deficit, but that was as close as UNT would get as the Razorbacks pulled away for the 15-point winning margin.
Smith shot 7-of-13 from the field, including 2-3 from distance for his first made three-pointers as a Hog, as part of his 18 points to go with 6 rebounds and 3 steals in 36 minutes. Notae had 6 rebounds, and another team-high in assists with 3, to go with his 16 points in 24 minutes. Sills was 4-of-7 from the field as part of his 14 points in 36 minutes. Moody was perfect at the free-throw line — 6-of-6 — for the bulk of his 11 points, and through two games he’s made 15-of-16 freebies (93.8%).
“I thought it was a good team win,” Smith said. “I think we all contributed in a lot of different ways whether it was scoring, on defense, rebounding. For me, I just wanted to go out there and let the game come to me.
“I’ve been working on those 3’s, so I had to shoot ’em. Because there’s no point in working on something if you’re not going to use it in a game.”
Forward Vance Jackson, Jr., and guard KK Robinson combined for only 2 points in 13 minutes after having a collective 30 points against MVSU. Freshman big man Jaylin Williams did not play following his 9-point, 10-rebound performance against MVSU.
Musselman said Vanover’s play and the matchups were the main factors resulting in the tighter 6-player rotation playing 187 of the total 200 minutes for the Hogs.
As a team, Arkansas did not shoot well. The Hogs were 23-of-55 from the field (41.8%), including 6-of-22 from 3 (27.3%), and only 17-of-26 from the free throw line (65.4%). Arkansas won rebounding (40-36) for the second consecutive game, as well as second-chance points (14-4), blocks (8-2) and steals (9-5).
Both teams had 10 assists and both suffered 16 turnovers.
In addition to Arkansas’ aforementioned effort to limit UNT’s three-point shooting, the Hogs held the Mean Green to 21-of-58 overall from the field (36.2%). UNT made 10-of-13 free throws (76.9%).
Terrence Lewis III finished with 12 points to lead UNT, which is coming off a 20-win campaign and a C-USA regular-season championship in ’19-20.
Arkansas held reigning C-USA Player of the Year Javion Hamlet to only 5 points and 4 assists.
Notae led the way with 11 points in the first 20 minutes followed by Moody and Smith with 8 points apiece and Sills with 7. Vanover made good on his first start as a Hog and chipped in 2 points on a putback dunk to go with 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, 1 assist, and 1 steal in the opening half.
Arkansas started the game 4-of-7 shooting before hitting a 1-of-11 rough patch. But behind Notae, Moody, and Smith the Razorbacks got into the lockerroom 12-of-29 from the field (42.4%), including only 3-of-13 from 3 (23.1%), to go with 11-of-15 from the free throw line (73.3%).
Sills, Moody, Smith, and Tate once again found themselves in the starting lineup with Vanover getting his first start as a Hog in place Jackson, who was among the first five in the Hogs’ win over MVSU in the season-opener on Wednesday.
Next up for the Razorbacks is a third-consecutive home game against Texas-Arlington on Wednesday (8 p.m. CT) in a matchup that will be televised by SEC Network.