FAYETTEVILLE — Whatever gameplan Vanderbilt head coach Jerry Stackhouse drew up to slow down Arkansas leading scorers Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe — two of the SEC’s top four point-producers — it was brilliant as the duo was shut out in the first half and held in check for most of the game.
Problem was, the Commodores could do nothing to stop SEC top-15 scorer Jimmy Whitt, Jr., who rang up a career-high 30 points to pace the Razorbacks in a 75-55 win Wednesday on Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena in front of 14,321 fans.
Arkansas (14-2, 3-1 SEC) has won 6 of its last 7 games, and the Hogs have matched their best SEC start (through the first four league games) in five years.
By virtue of league-unbeatens Auburn and Kentucky both losing on the road Wednesday night, the Razorbacks, Wildcats, Tigers, and the Florida Gators are in a 4-way tie for second place in the SEC and one game back of defending league champion LSU, which is still unbeaten through its first four SEC games.
“Obviously Jimmy Whitt offensively tonight was just so good finding the open gaps against a defense,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said. “He’s a tough matchup for the opposition. They’ve got to decide if they want to play a taller guy on him or match him up with a guard. When a taller guys is on him I think he does a great job of being able to use his quickness when that happens.
“I’m really glad for him that this (being back at Arkansas for his senior season) has worked out where he has such a good role. The amazing thing is I didn’t call one play for him tonight. Not one play. He just figured out how to find open gaps and he catches it and releases it over people. Really one of the most efficient players and unique players that I’ve ever coached.”
Before Wednesday’s performance, Whitt’s career-high was 24 points — scored three times (once at SMU and twice this season at Arkansas). He gives the Razorbacks back-to-back 30-point scorers as Joe had 34 points on Saturday in Arkansas’s 76-72 come-from-behind win at Ole Miss, and he becomes the Hogs’ third different 30-point scorer on the season.
Whitt was 14-of-24 shooting from the field (58.3%), a number that included his first three-point shot attempt of the season (a miss as the horn sounded to end the first half). Whitt also registered a team-high 8 rebounds, a game-high 2 blocks, and 1 steal in 39 minutes.
“I don’t think I’ve seen 30 points by name (in a boxscore) in five years,” said Whitt, who began his career at Arkansas only to transfer to SMU for two seasons before returning to the Hogs for his senior season. “So it’s pretty cool. Like I said, doing it here was special for me. It’s special that I could come here with these fans and with this group of guys and be able to reach a milestone like that.”
Joe and Jones combine to average nearly 38 points per game, and each has two 30-plus-point games on the season, but the duo went scoreless in the first half before totaling a combined 13 points against Vandy.
Joe had 12 points (4-of-11 from 3), 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal in 32 minutes. Joe now leads the SEC with 63 made three-pointers on the season. Of his 121 combined points scored in the last six outings, 98 have come in the second halves of games.
Jones had 1 point (0-of-7 field goals, including 0-of-5 from 3, and 1-of-2 free throws), 7 rebounds, and a game-high 8 assists in 31 minutes. Including his career-high 9 assists Saturday in the win at Ole Miss, Jones has 17 dimes in the Hogs’ last two games.
Sophomore guard Desi Sills had 13 points (6-of-9 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3), a career-high 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals in 36 minutes.
Sophomore forward Reggie Chaney had been struggling since Arkansas entered SEC play, but he played a season-high 22 minutes and matched his career-high in scoring with 14 points (6-of-6 field goals and 2-of-2 free throws) to go with 3 rebounds and 2 assists.
“Awesome,” Musselman said of Chaney’s bounce-back performance. “Obviously last game we went with (Jeantal) Cylla for stretches based on matchups. Cylla is more of a 3-4 type guy and we played him at the center. Tonight one of the themes to the game was try to get dump-off passes, meaning you get by the initial defender and the guys working the dunker’s spot trying to get to the gap because their big … likes to come over and try to shot-block. And I thought Reggie did a great job.”
Vanderbilt (8-8, 0-3 in SEC) has lost 23 straight games against SEC competition dating back to the 2017-18 season.
It was the Hogs’ fifth consecutive win over the Commodores, and their 9th victory in the last 10 meetings between the two schools.
Playing for the second-consecutive game without the SEC’s leading scorer — injured Aaron Nesmith (23.0 points per game) — the ‘Dores were led by guards Saben Lee (17 points all scored in the second half) and Maxwell Evans (16 points all scored in the first half).
Freshman 6-1 point guard Scotty Pippen, Jr. — yes, he’s the son of Hamburg, Ark., native and Naismith Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen — had 11 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists in 35 minutes.
“We just turned it over too many times to be able to beat a team like that,” Stackhouse said. “They thrive with their defense and they thrive in transition and we allowed them to get that by not getting shots on the board.”
Arkansas held a 37-33 second half lead when Joe made his first three triples and Whitt contributed 7 points of his own to an 18-4 surge that gave the Hogs a 55-38 lead with 11:46 to play.
The Hogs’ lead never fell below a 14-point margin from there, and Chaney’s dunk at :39 gave the Hogs’ their biggest lead of the game, 75-55, which held up as the final score.
The Hogs were 31-of-64 from the field (48.4%), including 5-of-20 from 3 (25%), and 8-of-15 from the free throw line (53.3%).
Arkansas’s NCAA Division 1-best three-point field goal defense held the SEC’s best three-point shooting team (37.5% coming in) to 5-of-20 from distance (25%). The Commodores were 19-of-48 overall from the field (39.6%) and 12-of-22 from the foul line (54.5%).
After going a combined minus-41 rebounding in two road games last week, Arkansas won the battle of the boards (38-30, including 9-4 on the offensive glass) in a matchup of the two worst rebounding teams in the SEC.
The Hogs also won turnovers (16-7), points-off-turnovers (18-4), points-in-the-paint (42-26), second-chance-points (7-2), and fast-break-points (12-5).
Arkansas led 12-10 when Vandy strung together a 7-2 mini run for a 17-14 lead midway through the first half.
But Whitt would score 8 straight points to punctuate a 15-3 Hogs’ surge for a 29-20 Arkansas advantage at the 3:31 mark.
Evans scored 6 points in a row to whittle the Arkansas lead down to 29-26, but Sills made the Hogs’ first three-point basket of the game from the left corner at 1:23 to double the lead, 32-26.
Despite 1-of-11 shooting from 3 and Jones and Joe both going scoreless, Arkansas led Vandy, 34-28, at the break as Whitt led both teams in the first 20 minutes with 17 points (8-of-13 field goals, including 0-of-1 from 3 as he attempted his first triple of the season as time expired).
Chaney provided a spark off the bench as he had 8 points (3-of-3 field goals and 2-of-2 free throws) to go with 2 assists and an offensive rebound.
Sills had 7 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in the first half.
Arkansas was 13-of-23 on two-point shots (56.5%) and 5-of-7 on free throws (71.4%). The Hogs won rebounds (20-17) and turnovers (8-2).
Vandy shot 10-of-25 from the field (40%), including 3-of-11 from 3 (27.3%), and 5-of-9 free throws (55.6%).
Next up, Arkansas hosts No. 10 Kentucky on Saturday. The Hogs-vs.-‘Cats tilt will be televised nationally at 3 p.m. CT by ESPN with iconic color analyst Dick Vitale expected to be in Fayetteville as part of the game coverage.