FAYETTEVILLE — Leading scorer Mason Jones was back on the court and the Arkansas Razorbacks stayed on their path toward the best start to a Hogs season since their national championship campaign 26 years ago with another grind-game win, 69-61, over Austin Peay on Tuesday in front of an announced crowd of 11,995 at Bud Walton Arena.
Arkansas (8-0) matched the eight-win start to a season that was last accomplished by the 1997-98 Razorbacks, and now the Hoop Hogs are one win away from the first 9-0 beginning to a season since ’93-94 when Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson led his eventual national champions to 10 straight wins out of the gates.
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman was not taking the bait when asked after the game if he was already thinking about his first Razorbacks team having a chance to take a seat at the table with the title-winning Hogs of the 20th century.
“No, I’m just worried about (Charles) Bassey,” Musselman said of the leading scorer and rebounder for his team’s next opponent, Western Kentucky. “My whole thought, we’ve got the depth chart up for Western Kentucky and it’s not going to be an easy place to play. It’s a weekend game. I’m sure they’ll have a good crowd. They came in here last year and won the game. Our guys know that they beat us here last year and when the schedule came out we knew with the three true road games, meaning the Georgia Tech game, the Western Kentucky game, and the Indiana game — we knew those three games we had to circle. Those were going to be three tough games and we’ve got one coming up on Saturday, one is in the books, and one is kind of down the road a little bit.
“So we’re happy we’re 8-0, but after Saturday we’ll go right back to training camp. We have three games in three weeks and we’re not going to have soft practices for those three weeks. We’ve got to clean up a ton of stuff and so we’ll get back and grind it for three hard weeks …”
Senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr., led the Hogs in scoring for the third time in four games, dropping in 17 points (7-of-13 field goals and 3-of-4 free throws) to go with 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal in 38 minutes.
“He’s done a great job of kind of playing in that dunker’s spot for us,” Musselman said of Whitt. “We’re playing him a lot where our 5-man would be. He’s got size advantage in he’s able to offensively rebound down there and he flashes to open gaps really good when his man kind of comes over. We call it ghosting along that baseline. He’s done a good job.
“My dad used to use Michael Ray “Sugar” Richardson that way a little bit too with his size when he had him. And you know he’s really creative. He obviously can play out on the point for us as well. But he’s really effective roaming that baseline and kind of having the freedom to duck in and kind of play a center-guard type of role.”
Jones — he played hero with a 35-foot bank-shot-3 at :00.1 in overtime to beat Georgia Tech, 62-61, in Atlanta last week — missed the Hogs’ win over Northern Kentucky on Saturday with an “AC strain” to his right shoulder, and though he did not score until the 6:34 mark of the first half he finished with 16 points (4-of-6 field goals, including 2-of-4 from 3, and 6-of-6 free throws) to go with 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 6 turnovers in his return against the Governors on Tuesday
“I’m not going to lie, it hurt watching them play when I wasn’t playing,” Jones said. “My first game missing being in an Arkansas Razorback uniform. But I trusted them the whole game. I knew they were going to come out and get a win against Northern Kentucky. I just wanted to make sure I was ready for this game.
“There was no way I was going to miss this game. I was ready. Regardless of the shoulder, I had to play. I didn’t want to sit out no more. I didn’t want to see my team suffer. I didn’t want those boys to play hard and I’m on the bench not doing nothing. Anything I can give to the team, I want to give to team. Scoring, rebounds, assists. Just anything. Just being a presence, being a decoy. I just want to be out there with my brothers.”
Arkansas had been struggling shooting the ball from 3 — just above 25% on the season — before a 9-of-23 effort for 39.1% against Austin Peay. It was the most 3-pointers made by the Razorbacks since their season-opening 10-of-25 performance (40.0%) against Rice.
Sophomore guard Isaiah Joe led four Hogs with at least two triples each as he made 3-of-10 from distance as part of his 16 points. He was also 5-of-5 at the foul line and he grabbed a team-high 6 rebounds to go with 2 steals, 1 assist, and 3 turnovers in 39 minutes.
Sophomore Desi Sills doubled his 3-point output on the season by making 2-of-5 as both of his makes came in a 34-second span in the final 2 minutes of the game to give Arkansas a 13-point lead twice. Sills finished with 8 points, 2 steals, 1 rebound, and 1 assist in 24 minutes.
Junior guard Jalen Harris was 2-of-4 from 3, raising his season numbers to 6-of-17 (35.3%) which is a monumental improvement over his 3-point shooting from a season ago when he shot 8-of-69 (11.6%). Harris finished with 6 points, 4 rebounds, a team-high 3 assists, and 6 turnovers in 32 minutes.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the team’s best frontline production that came from sophomore forward Ethan Henderson, who contributed 2 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 7 first-half minutes off the bench to spark the Hogs at both ends of the court.
Prior to Tuesday, Henderson had played in only two games and had not seen the floor since Nov. 19 when Arkansas defeated Texas Southern.
“Phenomenal!” Musselman said of Henderson’s contributions. “Cannot give Ethan enough credit. I thought that – you know it’s interesting. The crowd here is smart, the crowd here has high basketball IQ. We’re ecstatic about some of the sellouts coming up. But the crowd, they knew that Ethan came in with incredible energy and enthusiasm and played with great effort. And its no surprise that our crowd got into the game when Ethan came in. He looked fresher than the rest of our team. Give him a lot of credit. He blocked shots, he almost led us in rebounding and he only played seven minutes. He did a great job for us.
“He left his feet a couple of times which a young player who hasn’t gotten a lot of experience you would expect. But just mentally to be ready to play at that juncture of the game when Adrio and Reggie both had foul trouble, I can’t compliment Ethan enough. He’s really worked hard behind closed doors and continues, he’s out there shooting right now working on his perimeter shot. I just want him to continue working and having a great attitude which he has exhibited. Because he hasn’t been given much opportunity and he came in tonight and he produced and he put himself in a better position than maybe he was going into the game. And I give him a lot of credit because that’s not easy to do.”
While Arkansas saw improvement on offense, its national Top 10 defense had a second consecutive game in which its opponent connected on 40-plus percent in overall field goal shooting (AP was 22-of-53 for 41.5%) as well as 30-plus percent from 3 (AP was 6-of-19 for 31.6%). Arkansas came in with the nation’s No. 1 three-point defense, giving up only 17.9% from distance throught the first seven games. The Razorbacks did manage to hold Austin Peay 21.5 points below its season scoring average of 82.5 points, and the 61 points was a low-water mark on the season for the Governors.
The Hogs were beaten on the glass 30-27, but the Governors (3-4) came in No. 18 in the nation in offensive rebounding (13.8 per game) and they won that battle against Arkansas, 10-5, for a 17-9 advantage in second-chance points.
Arkansas came in top 5 nationally in turnover margin (plus-7.6 per game), but the Hogs were only plus-1 against the Governors (20-21).
One area that helped Arkansas extend a 4-point halftime lead to a double-digit advantage several times in the second half was the free throw line. Both teams shot extremely well on freebies — the Hogs were 16-of-18 for 88.9%, while the Govs were 11-of-13 for 84.6% — but in the second half Arkansas converted 12-of-13 (92.3%) while Austin Peay attempted only 4 free throws, making 3 with all coming in the final 1:05 of the game.
Junior 6-5 forward Terry Taylor came in as one of the top scorers and rebounders in the country, and he left Fayetteville after dropping 20 points and 6 rebounds. Guards Jordyn Adams and Antwuan Butler combined for 21 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists.
Arkansas led 44-41 when Joe and Jones combined for 5 points to extend the Hogs’ lead to 49-41 with 12:05 to play. But Peay was pesky and determined as Taylor scored twice to get the Governors within four, 49-45, midway through the second half.
Joe made two free throws and Whitt dunked to give Arkansas its first double-digit lead of the game — 59-49 — with 4:37 to play. From there, Sills would make both of his triples — the first gave the Hogs a 62-49 lead at 2:42, and the second was good for a 65-52 lead 34 seconds later.
The Razorbacks fell behind 5-0 but Whitt scored twice in the mid-range and Joe made a 3-pointer as Arkansas jumped ahead, 7-5.
The Hogs trailed once again, 18-16, when Jones scored his first two points (free throws at 6:34) since hitting the game-winning shot in overtime at Georgia Tech on Nov. 25.
Jones would score 8 more points — and Joe tallied 6 consecutive points — to fuel a Hogs’ 20-8 run for a 34-26 lead with one minute to play in the first half. However, the Governors would score the final four points to pull within 34-30 at the break.
Jones (10 points) and Joe (9 points) led the Hogs in scoring.
Arkansas had a strong first-half shooting the ball (12-of-21 for 57.1%, including 6-of-11 from 3), but Austin Peay used a 5-1 edge in offensive rebounds for an 8-2 advantage in second-chance points, as well as 8-of-9 free throw shooting to stay close at halftime. Each team suffered 9 first-half turnovers.
Following the win over Austin Peay, Arkansas will travel to Bowling Green, Ky., for its second road game of the season — a Saturday tilt at Western Kentucky that is set to tip at 6:30 p.m. CT in a game being televised nationally by CBS Sports Network. The Hilltoppers defeated Arkansas, 78-77, in early December last season at Bud Walton Arena.