FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas sophomore guard Isaiah Joe of Fort Smith saw his starting streak — all 52 games as a Razorback — come to an end on Saturday as he sat out nursing a knee injury, but another streak came to an end as fellow Arkansan Desi Sills picked up the slack with 18 points to go with 20-point efforts each by Jimmy Whitt, Jr., and Mason Jones to halt the Hogs’ two-game losing skid with a convincing 78-67 win over Texas Christian University in the annual Big 12 / SEC Challenge in front of 19,200 fans at sold-out Bud Walton Arena.
Arkansas (15-4, including 3-3 SEC) improved to 3-3 all-time in the Big 12 / SEC Challenge, including 3-0 in games played at BWA. The Hogs improved their all-time record against TCU to 105-38, representing the most wins against a single program in school history in a series that goes back to both teams’ membership in the defunct Southwest Conference.
Arkansas finished the non-SEC portion of its schedule with its best record (12-1) in regular-season non-conference games in 11 years (the 2008-09 Hogs also went 12-1 in non-confenerence play before going 2-14 in the SEC). And, the Razorbacks have their best start through 19 games since the ’14-15 squad also won 15 of its first 19 games.
Arkansas swept its three games against high-major non-conference opponents — winning 62-61 in overtime at Georgia Tech of the ACC in November, winning 71-64 at Indiana of the Big 10 in December, and now winning at home against TCU of the Big 12. But the Razorbacks came into Saturday’s game against the Frogs on the heels of back-to-back 7-point SEC losses — 73-66 at home against then-No. 10 Kentucky on Jan. 18 and 77-70 on the road gainst Mississippi State on Wednesday.
“This was a game that we had to win,” said first-year Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman, who in four-plus years as an NCAA Division 1 head coach still has never suffered a three-game losing streak or back-to-back home losses thanks to win aganst the Horned Frogs. “Had to win this game tonight. Indiana’s playing well. That’s going to be such a quality win. When you look at non-conference and you say we beat three of those teams, Power Five, two of them on the road, one of them home, we had not a good non-conference, we had a great non-conference.
“We took care of business in the non-conference. Now we’ll see what we do in our own conference, but as far as the non-conference play — because now that book and that chapter is closed — I thought we were awesome.”
Sills, the 6-2 sophomore guard from Jonesboro, played a crucial part in Arkansas overcoming the loss of Joe, the team’s second-leading scorer (16.8 points per game, 6th in the SEC) and leading 3-point shooter who’s been dealing with a right knee injury sutained during a win at Ole Miss on Jan. 11.
Sills saw his own starting streak (26 games going back to the ’18-19 season) come to an end Saturday as Musselman inserted senior guard Jalen Harris into the first unit, but Sills seized the moment after checking in just 1:11 into the game. He made a 3-point basket at 17:16 to tie the game at 6-all, and his 11 first-half points helped the Hogs take a 33-29 lead at the break.
Sills’ third and final 3-point basket at the 8:52 mark of the second half gave Arkansas its first double-digit led, 59-48, as TCU never moved closer than a 9-point deficit the rest of the way. After struggling to score a combined 4 points in the losses against Kentucky and Mississippi State, Sills was 7-of-8 from the field (including 3-of-3 from 3) and 1-of-2 from the free throw line for his 18 points, and he also contributed 2 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 assist in 34 minutes.
“Look, Desi had started every game,” Musselman said. “And he started towards the end of last year. And you have to have a difficult conversation with someone, and then you hope a sophomore is going to handle it the right way mentally. He had his best practice yesterday (Friday). He didn’t miss a jump shot. He approached it the right way. I thought J5 (Harris, who got his first start of the season in place of Sills) approached it the right way. He’s still a young player (Sills) whose learning and stuff … He could have pouted. He could have been upset, he could have had a bad practice yesterday.
“The guy comes in and has his best practice of the year and literally when we did our shooting drills the guy hardly missed a shot yesterday. Sometimes just a little change of scenery coming off the bench, seeing the flow of the game, sometimes it alleviates a little bit of pressure for a player, too. I’m just really proud of how he handled not starting, because that’s not an easy thing for a young player at all.”
Sills saw the situation as a “next man up” scenario.
“I had to be ready,” Sills said. “It was all about that next man up. Coach called J5 up and I had to be ready. I couldn’t get down or nothing, I just had to be prepared and do what I have to do to help this team win … He’s one of the best players in the country (Joe), so we all have to stick together, buy in together and we all have to do what we have to do. We know we’re losing one of the best guards in the country. We all stepped up and we came out with the win.”
Whitt played all 40 minutes for the third time this season while recording his second-consecutive 20-point scoring game, and it was the second time this season that he scored at least 20 points with one of the Hogs’ top producers missing in action (Whitt had a then-career-high-tying 24 points to lead Arkansas over Northern Kentucky, 66-60, in late November as leading-scorer Jones was out with a shoulder injury).
Whitt made 8-of-15 field goals and 4-of-4 free throws for his 20 points to go with 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal. He also defended TCU’s leading scorer in 6-6 senior Desmond Bane (17.2 points per game coming in), holding him to only 8 points in 37 minutes.
“I’ve been around two NBA level defenders, Cody Martin (at Nevada), whose obviously in the NBA now and Jimmy Whitt,” Musselman said. “Those are two NBA defenders that I’ve coached at the college level. I don’t know that there’s a college guard defensively that can do anymore than Jimmy Whitt’s doing … I’d like to know how many games Bane has not had double figures (scoring) and I want to know how many games he only got six shots up. Because they were running him off screens and they were setting triple screens … Jimmy just kept …There was really about a minute-and-a-half stretch where Bane hit kind of back-to-back threes or where he could even get free for a shot.
That guy (Bane) cuts hard, and he’s 6-6 and he’s strong. And Jimmy just took him out of the game.”
Jones scored 19 of his 20 points (4-of-11 field goals, including 2-of-4 from 3, and 10-of-15 free throws) in the second half to go with 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 steal in 30 minutes. In the Hogs’ loss at Mississippi State on Wednesday, Jones scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half.
Harris made the most of his first start, scoring 7 points to go with a game-high 6 assists and 4 rebounds in 32 minutes.
“It’s really big,” Harris said of the Hogs winning their Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup on a day when the leagues forged a 5-5 split in 10 games. “Especially when you think you’re playing in the best conference in the country you have to go out and show it. I think we’ve done that, so far.”
Arkansas starting forward and senior Adrio Bailey played 34 minutes and finished with 7 points, a team-high 6 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block. Sophomore forward Reggie Chaney got his first start of the season and played 14 minutes, finishing with 6 points — all scored consecutively early in the second half to give the Hogs a 9-point lead, 46-37. Reserve senior forward Jeantal Cylla played 13 minutes and had 4 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 assist. Sophomore forward Ethan Henderson gave the short-handed Hogs 3 minutes off the bench in the first half.
As a team, Arkansas had its most efficient offensive game of the season by shooting 27-of-50 from the field (54.0%), including a scorching 6-of-9 from 3 (66.7%), and 18-of-25 from the free throw line (72.0%). The Hogs lost the rebounding battle (34-26) per the norm, but the second-chance points favored TCU by only plus-3 (15-12). Arkansas also fought to a draw in points-in-the-paint (34-all). The Razorbacks were plus-7 in turnovers (19-12) and plus-12 in fast-break points (18-6).
“I thought it was our best game of the year on both sides of the ball,” Musselman said. “I thought defensively we utilized a scene that we haven’t all year. We face-guarded No. 1, Desmond Bane. We felt like if we could limit him to 10 or fewer shots attempted, the goal was to try to hold him to 10 our less points which is a hard to thing to do against one of the best scorers in the country. Jimmy was awesome. He didn’t come off the floor for a blow at all. He face guarded and didn’t allow Bane to catch the ball at all.
“Our shot selection from three was awesome. I don’t think we took any bad shots. I thought it was the most efficient offensive game we’ve had all season long. Desi was awesome off the bench and Jalen Harris gave us incredible pressure on their defense by pushing the ball. We ran a play that we normally only run after free throws called “Pistol.” And we ran it after makes and misses and we were awesome in executing it. Mason came through in the second half.”
TCU, coming off a home win on Wednesday againt No. 18 Texas Tech, was led by 6-11 sophomore center Kevin Samuel, who recorded a monster double-double — 24 points (9-of-12 field goals and 6-of-9 free throws) and 18 rebounds — in 33 minutes. Swingman RJ Nembhard finished with 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 7 turnovers in 27 minutes. Bane’s 8 points came on 3-of-6 field-goal shooting, including 2-of-3 from 3, to go with 5 assists and 2 rebounds in 37 minutes.
TCU, the top 3-point shooting team in the Big 12 at over 35% from distance, made 6-of-19 behind the arc (31.6%) against Arkansas.
“Give them credit,” said TCU head coach Jamie Dixon, who was a Horned Frog during his playing days in the 1980s when Arkansas and TCU played at least twice annually in the SWC. “They got way more free throws than we wanted to give them. That’s on us. And though we out-rebounded them by a big number – eight – the turnovers. The turnovers killed us. I think we had I can’t even keep track of the travel calls. I think we had three carries that were called. We had two 3-second calls. So that is a first for me.
“But those killed us. And we’ve got to get that fixed and do a better job. I thought the technical foul was really a bad mistake on my part, for saying ‘Carry.’ But that’s all I said. But that hurt us … So we got what we deserved.”
Dixon was T’ed up at 10:12 of the second half, and Jones hit 3-of-4 free throws (he made both of the technical-foul freebies, then he was 1-of-2 after drawing a foul on the ensuing possession) as part of an overall 12-2 Arkansas run that expanded a 51-46 Hogs’ lead to 63-48.
Up next for Arkansas, the Razorbacks get back into SEC play next week with a home game Wednesday against South Carolina before going on the road for a Saturday, Feb. 1, matchup with Alabama in Tuscaloose, Ala.