By Kevin McPherson
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — When the Arkansas Razorbacks make their annual trek down to central Arkansas, it’s always been about more than just a basketball game — it’s a chance to embrace the community at large, which includes a 501 hoops culture that is among the best in the nation. Like they do every year, the players and coaches spent Friday visiting and raising spirits at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, taking to the airwaves to promote good will, and they even took the opportunity to do some recruiting.
But when the business end of the trip finally rolled around Saturday night, the Hogs stumbled around for awhile before treating 12,462 energtic and appreciative fans at Verizon Arena to a hard-fought, come-from-behind 79-67 win over Texas-San Antonio.
Arkansas (7-2) bounced back from a disappointing one-point home loss against Western Kentucky a week ago, and in doing so the Hogs stand only three more non-conference games away from the start of SEC play.
“First let me say the fans were unbelievable tonight,” said Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson, who improved to 6-2 at Arkansas in games played in North Little Rock. “They just hung in with us. We didn’t get off to a great start. Part of that probably was us and Texas-San Antonio. I thought those kids played extremely hard.
“Steve Henson had those guys ready to play. It seemed like every loose ball they came up with. And they came with a game plan. I thought we were a little sluggish.”
The Roadrunners (3-7) had won 3 of their last 4 games, and from the start Saturday they gave the Razorbacks fits, leading for much of the first half and eventually erasing a 7-point halftime deficit to retake the lead at 52-48 with 9:07 remaining in the game.
But freshman guard Isaiah Joe of Fort Smith hit his fifth 3-pointer with 8:21 to play to give Arkansas a 53-52 advantage, and the Hogs would never trail again. Leading 64-62, Arkansas used a 15-5 run — including 11-of-14 (78.6%) from the throw line — in the final 1:57 to close things out for the final 12-point winning margin.
It was a strong finish at the line for the Hogs in a game that was marred late by a few chippie fouls. Hogs sophomore wing Mason Jones was hit with a flagrant-1 foul call when he reacted to a foul by UTSA guard Jhivvan Jackson — a play that resulted in both players fouling out of the game with 43.9 seconds to play. UTSA was also tagged with an intentional foul with 29 seconds remaining.
For the game, Arkansas shot 27-of-34 at the foul line for 79.4%, well above the Hogs’ 62.7% season percentage coming in.
“It was huge,” Anderson said of the Hogs taking care of business at the free throw line. “Texas-San Antonio was taking things away from us inside and they were doing a pretty good job of taking care of the basketball. So our defense had to have patience. And sometimes you have to do that. I thought our matchup zone was the difference in the game. It kept them out of the lane because they have guards that can penetrate and get to the lane. And they were getting to the free throw line quite a bit as well.
“So you have to capitalize on the things you do well. I always say the crowd, and this crowd tonight, was worth 8 to 10 points. They were great. They hung in there and we had that nice surge at the end.”
Joe led Arkansas with a game-high 21 points (5-of-9 field goals including 5-of-6 from 3, plus 6-of-6 free throws all coming in the final 29 seconds). It was Joe’s second career 20-plus-point game, and he has scored in double figures in all eight games for the Hogs.
Sophomore center Daniel Gafford recorded his fourth double-double of the season — he had 3 in 35 games as a freshman — with 13 points and a career-high 14 rebounds to go with 2 blocks and 1 steal.
Gafford was 5-of-8 at the free throw line, including 3-of-4 (75.0%) late in the game. After starting the season 13-of-28 (46.4%) at the line, Gafford has vastly improved in the last five games as he’s boosted that up to 24-of-33 (72.7%).
Sophomore guard Jalen Harris registered his second double-double of the season — 11 points (including 7-of-8 free throws), 10 assists, and no turnovers. It was his fourth game with at least 10 assists, and he now has 68 assists to 9 turnovers through Arkansas’s first 9 games.
Freshman forward Reggie Chaney had his best game as a Razorback, playing off the bench in the first half but starting the final 20 minutes en route to having 11 points (10 in the second half), 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks in a season-high 28 minutes.
“If there was a game ball, I’d give it to Reggie,” Anderson said. “Because I thought his defense and his presence out there, blocking shots, touching balls, rebounding the basketball, finishing around the basket, running the floor. I thought he played a superb game. You can just see his confidence is just building and building. Four assists, three blocked shots, four steals.
“Thats probably the moset minutes he’s played, and he was productive.”
Freshman guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro had his fourth consecutive productive game, contributing 9 points, 1 steal, and 1 rebound in 18 minutes off the bench.
UTSA’s two leading scorers — sophomore guards Keaton Wallace and Jhivvan Jackson — combined for 38 points to stay in line with their season averages, but the crafty duo managed only 12-of-37 from the field for 32.4%.
After suffering multiple defensive hiccups in their 78-77 loss a week ago against Western Kentucky, the Hogs got off to a slow start defensively against UTSA before hunkering down to limit the Roadrunners to 21-of-61 (34.4%) from the field, including 5-of-18 from 3 (27.8%).
Arkansas was plus-9 on the glass in the final 10 minutes of the game to win the overall rebounding battle (39-36), and that was key given that the Hogs lost the turnover battle (15-12). Arkansas won the bench scoring battle (26-12).
UTSA started the game shooting 6-of-7 field goals and grabbed a 17-12 lead midway through the first half. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Joe gave Arkansas its first lead since the opening minutes of the game, 23-20. It was part of a 21-6 Hogs run that gave them their biggest lead of the opening 20 minutes, 33-23. The Roadrunners closed with a 5-2 run to pull within 35-28 at the break.
Joe led the Hogs with 12 first-half points on 4-of-5 shooting from 3, and Sills chipped in 7 points.
Arkansas will host Georgia Tech of the ACC on Wednesday, Dec. 19, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. Two more home games at BWA — against Texas State on Dec. 22 and Austin Peay on Dec. 28 — will round out the December portion of Arkansas’s schedule before the Hogs open up SEC play on the road against Texas A&M on Jan. 5, 2019.