The Arkansas Razorbacks need a serious run in the SEC tournament for a shot at playing in the NCAA tournament that begins next week, and they climbed the first rung of that steep ladder by controlling both ends of the floor en route to an impressive 86-73 win over Vanderbilt on Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
The Hogs’ backcourt quartet came though in a big way as SEC Co-Player of the Year Mason Jones led the team with 22 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals; sophomore guard Desi Sills had 20 points (on 6-of-8 field-goal shooting, including 5-of-6 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws); sophomore guard Isaiah Joe pumped in 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 assist; and senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr., contributed 12 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal.
Arkansas (20-12, 8-11 in SEC games) won its first game away from Bud Walton Arena since taking down Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Feb. 1, and now the Razorbacks are 5-8 in true away games (4-8 on the road and 1-0 in one true neutral-site game). The Hogs improved to 4-2 in their last six games since the return of Joe to the lineup.
The 11th-seeded Hogs will meet 6th-seeded South Carolina (18-13, 10-8 SEC) in the fourth and final game of the SECT second-round on Thursday (opening tip is expected to be sometime after 8 p.m. CT), and the game will be played in a mostly empty arena as the SEC announced Wednesday night that going forward in the SECT it would limit attendance to teams, game and arena staff, and a small number of teams’ family members in response to concerns over the coronavirus that has become an international pandemic.
“For me, it’s (playing in an empty arena) going to be normal,” said Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman, who became only the second head coach in program history to win 20 games in his first season at the helm. “I coached in the (NBA) D-League in an empty building. We’re not educated enough to know anything other than what people are telling us to do (regarding protective measures due to coronavirus). We’ve just got to be competitors, just go play.
“I asked the guys, ‘What do you think Kobe Bryant would do if he was playing in an empty arena?’ There was silence. They know how hard he’d compete.”
Needing at least two more wins, possibly three more, for serious NCAAT at-large consideration — and the Hogs need four wins over the next four days to earn the league’s auotmatic NCAAT bid via claiming the SECT title — Arkansas was collectively good in several aspects of the game that were not exactly strengths of the team coming into the postseason. The Hogs were outstanding at moving and sharing the basketball (17 assists on 25 made field goals) and with rim protection (7 blocked shots and many more that were altered around the basket), and they got significant contributions from their role players (junior guard Jalen Harris started and had 7 points and 5 assists, and sophomore forwards Reggie Chaney and Ethan Henderson combined for 4 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 blocks). And defensively, the Hogs were stifling in the first half, limiting the Commodores to 6-of-25 field goals (24.0%).
The Hogs were solid offensively, shooting 25-of-51 from the field (49.0%), including 12-of-28 from 3 (42.9%), and 24-of-31 on free throws (77.4%). Arkansas was only minus-1 in the rebounding battle (35-34) but also finished only plus-1 in turnovers (14-13), although the Razorbacks won points-off-turnovers (20-13) and fastbreak points (14-8).
Arkansas’s defense held Vandy to 23-of-60 shooting for the game (38.3%), including 6-of-24 from 3 (25.0%). The Commodores scored several uncontested layups late in the game as the Hogs were trying to avoid fouls with the outcome no longer in doubt, and certainly Vandy beneffitted from 22 common fouls and 2 technical fouls called on Arkansas as the ‘Dores cashed in those whistles for 21-of-28 free-throw shooting (75.0%).
Harris opened the scoring for Arkansas in the second half with a pull-up jumper and a three-pointer, then Jones and Whitt each scored a deuce, followed by a Sills triple as the Hogs used a 12-4 run to take their biggest lead of the game, 50-30, at the 14:52 mark.
Capped by a three-pointer by star guard Saban Lee — he finished with a game-high 30 points — Vandy would chip away with a 10-2 surge that allowed the ‘Dores to pull within 59-48 with 8:41 to go, but another Sills triple followed by a Jones steal that he converted into a 2-of-2 free throw trip pushed the Razorbacks ahead, 64-48.
Vandy strung together another run to pull within 10, but Joe sank his fourth three-pointer to extend Arkansas to a 76-63 lead with 2:06 to play.
Things would get interesting from there — theatrically speaking — as both Joe and Jones fouled out within a second of each other and Musselman picked up a technical foul, all coming in a 39-second span (from 1:46 to 1:07). The Hogs emerged from that whistle-fest stretch with a 78-66 lead, and they’d make 8-of-10 free throws from there to ice the victory.
Vanderbilt had its two-game winning streak snapped and finished its injury-plagued season with an 11-21 overall record, including 3-16 in SEC games, under first-year head coach Jerry Stackhouse. In addition to Lee’s 30 points, Vandy got 16 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 assists from freshman guard Scotty Pippen, Jr.; 13 points and 10 rebounds from freshman forward Dylan Disu; and 10 points and 4 rebounds from freshman wing Jordan Wright.
Arkansas used runs of 10-0 and 14-2 to build a 25-9 lead as the Hogs held Vanderbilt without a field goal for 9:23 of game time (from 14:19 to 4:56). The Commodores would chip away at the free throw line as the Razorbacks settled for a 38-26 lead at the break.
Jones scored 7 consecutive Arkansas points twice en route to a 14-point first half. Sills had 9 points, Joe had 8 points and 5 rebounds, Whitt had 6 points and 4 rebounds, and sophomore forwards Ethan Henderson and Reggie Chaney combined for 4 blocks in the first 20 minutes.
The Hogs shot 13-of-32 from the field (40.6%), including 6-of-16 from 3 (37.5%, and 6-of-8 on free throws (75.0%). Defensively, the Hogs had their best half of basketball in weeks, limiting the Commodores to 6-of-25 shooting (24.0%), including 3-of-13 from 3 (23.1%). But 11 Arkansas fouls fueled 11-of-14 free throw shooting (78,6%) that kept the ‘Dores within relative striking distance going into halftime.