Arkansas survives loss of Jones and perimeter D lapse for 66-60 win over Northern Kentucky to mark Hogs’ best start to a season in 22 years

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Coming off a dramatic last-second win on the road, the Arkansas Razorbacks were ripe for a trap-game setback Saturday against a good Northern Kentucky team invading Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville looking for its first win over a high-major team ever. Compounded by the loss of leading-scorer Mason Jones (shoulder injury, did not play), an off shooting night by second-leading scorer Isaiah Joe, and the first perimeter defensive letdown of the season, the Hogs survived the Norse upset bid by making 5-of-6 free throws in the final 23.4 seconds to close the game on a 5-0 run for a 66-60 victory on Nolan Richardson Court in front of an announced crowd of 14,080.

Arkansas remains one of only two unbeaten SEC teams, and the 7-0 beginning to the season is the first in the program since Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson led his Hogs to an 8-0 start 22 years ago (1997-98). The win over two-time defending Horizon League champ NKU (5-3) also marks the first time the Razorbacks enter the month of December unscathed since the ’14-15 season when the Bobby Portis-led Hogs entered December with a 6-0 record. 

Jones buried a 35-foot bank-shot-triple with :00.1 left in overtime to sink Georgia Tech, 62-61, on Monday in the Hogs’ most-recent outing, but was held out of Saturday’s game against NKU with a shoulder injury. Senior graduate-transfer Jimmy Whitt, Jr., and sophomore Desi Sills of Jonesboro picked up the scoring slack against a game Norse squad that came close but fell to 0-18 all-time against high-major programs.

“I’m not sure when he hurt it,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said of Jones’s injured shoulder. “You know Mark, our trainer, just told me (Friday) that it was bothering him and he didn’t shoot around today. As far as I’m concerned he’s out indefinitely, and we’ll prepare for our game Tuesday for, you know, not to have him.

“I thought the guys did a great job (in the absence of Jones). I thought Desi stepped up scoring the ball, he was a little bit more aggressive. And Desi’s dribble-drives against their zone were phenomenal. I thought Jimmy did a great job of kind of playing the dunker spot, we call it, against the zone and found some open seams. And Jalen Harris pushed the pace … got us some easy transition baskets. I mentioned Reggie (Chaney), I mean his rebounding tonight is what we need from him. Something that’s probably not gonna get talked enough about is when you have a guy come off the bench like Reggie and he has five assists. I thought he did a great job of interior passing.” 

Whitt had a career-high-tying 24 points by once again being a master of the mid-range game (9-of-15 field goals and 6-of-7 free throws, including a 2-of-2 freebie trip with 2.2 seconds remaining that iced the win). Whitt has scored 24 points three times in his career — against Cincinnati last season while he was playing at SMU, and in the Hogs’ last home game against South Dakota on Nov. 22. Whitt also had 9 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in 38 minutes against NKU. 

“It was next-man up mentality, guys had to step up and play and I think we were able to do that tonight,” Whitt said of playing without Jones.

Sills scored a season-high 17 points (7-of-10 on two-point field goals, 0-of-6 from 3, and 3-of-5 free throws) to go with 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 assist, and 1 block in 39 minutes. Joe finished with 10 points (2-of-10 field goals, including 2-of-9 from 3) and 4 assists in 39 minutes. 

“One thing for sure: Shooter’s shoot, and always I’m going to keep on shooting,” Sills said of fighting through his perimeter shooting slump with driving finishes in the paint. “Eventually they’re going to fall. Like Jimmy always tell me, keep my head up high, don’t ever hold it down. Just keep shooting, try to get into a rhythm, get to the rim. That’s what I did tonight.”

As Musselman alluded to when talking about the contributions of Chaney and Harris, the Hogs got a big lift from their bench as Chaney (6-8 sophomore forward) played a season-high 25 minutes in his fourth game back from suspension, chipping in 6 points (3-of-5 field goals), a career-high 11 rebounds, and a career-high and game-high-tying 5 assists. Harris (6-2 junior guard) logged a season-high 35 minutes and finished with 5 points (1-of-2 from 3), a game-high-tying 5 assists, 4 rebounds, and 1 steal.

The Hogs came in with the nation’s top 3-point defense, having held five of their first six opponents to sub-20% shooting from distance en route to yielding a 14.1% three-point shooting percentage on the season. Only South Dakota — the top 3-point shooting team in the country at the time — managed to make three 3-pointers against the Hogs while making 25% (going 3-of-12). Well, Northern Kentucky started 5-of-9 from 3 against Arkansas — all coming in the first five minutes of the game. The Norse would finish 8-of-24 for 33.3% behind the arc, and their 20-of-51 effort (39.1%) in overall field goal shooting was better than the Hogs’ overall field-goal-percentage defense that was ranked No. 8 in the country at 35.0% coming into the game. Arkansas also came in top 5 in the country in turnovers forced (21.3), but the Hogs and Norse scuffled to a 12-all tie in the turnover department.

“Defensively we’ve got to get back to being who we are,” Musselman said. “We’ve got to defend better. We didn’t do a very good job on their star player, No. 32 (Dantez) Walton. And we didn’t defend the 3-ball like we have through six games. So, two huge areas of concern that we need to correct before we play on Tuesday.”

 It was another rough shooting night for Arkansas — 23-of-55 overall field goals for 41.8%, including 3-of-18 from 3 (16.7%) — as Northern Kentucky’s junk matchup zone defense gave the Hogs fits on the perimeter from the opening tip. Arkansas was at least able to offset the poor shooting outside with a 38-18 (plus-20) scoring advantage in the paint, plus the Hogs had yet another strong free-throw shooting game (17-of-22 for 77.3%). The Razorbacks also had 18 assists on their 23 made field goals. 

“Our three-point shooting is a humongous concern right now, I mean it’s night after night after night,” Musselman said. “It’s hard to win games when you shoot in the teens (percentage-wise) from 3-point land.”

The Hogs won the overall rebounding battle, 37-32, but NKU senior 6-6 guard Dantez Walton’s offensive rebound and putback with 0:24 remaining pulled the Norse within 61-60. Joe was immediately fouled, but made only 1-of-2 free throws for a 62-60 Arkansas lead. NKU’s Adham Eleeda missed a wide-open 3-point attempt from the right corner at 0:14 that would have given the Norse the lead, and senior forward Adrio Bailey secured the defensive rebound, was fouled, and made both free throws at 0:11 to extend the Hogs to a two-possession advantage, 64-60. NKU’s Trevon Faulkner missed a 3-pointer at :06 and Whitt rebounded, was fouled at 2.2 seconds, and made both free throws for the final margin.

Joe and Harris combined for 5-of-5 free throws to cap a 12-3 Hogs run that gave them their biggest lead, 55-43, with 8:49 to play. But Walton, Faulkner, and senior guard Tyler Sharpe each scored to fuel a quick 8-0 NKU spurt that pulled the Norse within 55-51 at the 6:10 mark. Chaney and Whitt both dunked as Arkansas extended to a 59-53 advantage with 4:49 to play. 

Walton — he finished with a monster 30-point, 10-rebound, 4-steal, 4-block, 2-assist stat line in 38 minutes — knocked down a 3 at the 3:11 mark to cut the Hogs lead in half, 59-56. After a basket by Whitt at 2:45 for Arkansas’s final field goal of the game, Walton scored four consecutive points to pull the Norse within 61-60 at the 0:24 mark.

Faulkner finished with 14 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds, and 2 steals for NKU, while Sharpe chipped in 10 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal. In addition to coming off back-to-back Horizon League titles, Northern Kentucky has played in two NCAA tournaments sandwiched around an NIT appearance spanning the past three seasons. The Norse have only been competing on the NCAA Division 1 level since 2012. NKU first-year head coach Darrin Horn fell to 2-3 against Arkansas as he was 2-2 while serving as head coach at South Carolina (2008-2012).

“Never okay with a loss, obviously, but really proud of our guys and how we competed,” Horn said. “We’ve really been challenging them, especially over the  last week, that we really need to put a game together where we compete for 40 minutes where we follow gameplan, where we do the little things like get on the floor for loose balls, and grab the ball in key moments. I think we definitely did that tonight, we just didn’t make enough basketball plays to win the game. 

“And got Adham Eleeda wide open at the end of the game, you’re not going to get a better look than that at 62-60. I don’t know exactly how much time was on the clock right there, I think about 15 seconds maybe, then it just didn’t go in. Really pleased with our effort to come into this environment against a team that we’re definitely outmatched against athletically. That being said, I thought we had the best player on the floor tonight — quite honestly I didn’t think it was close — in Dantez Walton. I thought he was outstanding, really impacted the game in a lot of different ways, not just scoring the basketball. Not happy with the loss, but this is something I think we can take and build on as we move forward.”

Arkansas fell behind 13-4 early as NKU began the game 3-of-4 from 3, and though the Razorbacks trailed for much of the first half, they were able to cobble together a 10-0 run to close the first half with a 33-28 lead as Sills (12 points) and Whitt (9 points) led the way. The two teams periodically traded baskets to start the second half before Arkansas’s 12-3 run that stretched a 43-40 lead to 55-43 at the 8:49 mark. 

With the win over Northern Kentucky to close out the four-November-home-game Collegiate Hoops Roadshow series, Arkansas has a quick-turnaround and will host Austin Peay on Tuesday. Tip is set for 7 p.m. CT at BWA in a game that can be seen via live-stream on SEC Network Plus.

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