By Kevin McPherson
FAYETTEVILLE — Although it took most of the first half to get going the 14th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks enjoyed another runaway-train performance at home on Friday, and this time the luckless souls catching the Hoop Hogs in a less than generous mood were the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs in an 86-68 shot-block-fest thrashing on Nolan Richardson Court inside Bud Walton Arena.
The Razorbacks trailed by as many as 8 points early, but they used a 19-5 first-half-closing run for a 12-point advantage at the break before blowing the game wide open in the final 20 minutes by building as much as a 26-point lead.
Arkansas (2-0, No. 12 in KenPom rankings entering Friday’s game) was coming off a 93-59 season-opening win over Alcorn State on Monday, while Gardner-Webb (1-1, No. 185 in KenPom rankings entering Friday) authored its own season-opening romp, 98-58, over the Division II Erskine Flying Fleet on Monday.
Senior guard Khalif Battle led the way with 21 points (5-of-9 field goals, including 3-of-4 from 3, and 8-of-10 free throws) to go with 4 rebounds and 1 assist. Battle is averaging 21.0 points in the unbeaten Hogs’ first two games to lead the team.
Battle scored 10 points in that 19-5 game-deciding Arkansas run to end the first half in building a 48-36 lead at the break.
“He’s (Battle) been phenomenal,” Musselman said. “Battle is a starter. He’s just not hearing his name called right away. He’s been our most efficient offensive player. He stretches the floor, he can play one-on-one, he can draw free throws. He’s a good foul shooter. He did a decent job on the defensive backboards tonight. Really happy with how he played.
“I thought our depth took a huge step back tonight. I really did, with the minutes that they were given.”
The Razorbacks used a 15-7 spurt to open the second half in establishing their first 20-point lead, 63-43, with 13:31 to play before eventually growing the advantage to 26 points, 86-60, with 4:30 remaining in the game.
Junior wing and started Tramon Mark had 14 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, and a boxscore plus-18 in 27 minutes. Senior guard El Ellis finished with 13 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, only 1 turnover, and a boxscore plus-18 in 32 minutes while sophomore forward Trevon Brazile had 10 points (4-of-4 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws), 7 rebounds, a game-high 5 blocks, 3 turnovers, and a boxscore plus-20 in 24 minutes.
Brazile led seven Hogs who swatted shots as Arkansas won the shot-blocking battle, 15-0. It’s the most blocks in a single game by an Eric Musselman-coached team as he’s now into his ninth season as a head coach.
“I thought we did a great job of altering and blocking shots,” Musselman said. “But we have to really improve with physicality vertical. We blocked a shot or gave up a layup. So we have to get a lot better defensively. We have to become a lot more physical than where we are right now. But certainly rim protection was great with the finesse of blocking shots.
“We did a great job on their star player (DQ Nicholas) again. The whole week we really focused on No. 4 Nicholas, and he went 1 of 9. So I thought that the guys assigned to him, and the other four on the floor, did a great job on their all-league player. Disappointed with our defensive rebounding for sure. And then we gave guys an opportunity tonight, and we did not play very well the last nine minutes of the game — at all.”
Starting senior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis had 4 points but went 0-of-4 from 3, and he contributed 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, ZERO turnovers, and a boxscore plus-9 in 22 minutes. Senior starting stretch-5 Chandler Lawson had 5 points (2-of-2 field goals, including 1-of-1 from 3), 3 rebounds, 1 steal, and 4 fouls in 10 minutes.
Senior center Makhi Mitchell came off the bench for 5 points, 5 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 assists, and a game-high boxscore plus-23 in 17 minutes. Senior forward / center Jalen Graham chipped in 4 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 block in 9 minutes. Senior wing Jeremiah Davenport had 5 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 block in 9 minutes. Sophomore wing Joseph Pinion had 5 points and 1 block in 8 minutes. Freshman center Baye Fall finished with 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1 steal in 10 minutes.
All 12 available scholarship Hogs played as did both walk-ons. Freshman guard Layden Blocker (illness) did not play and was not on the bench with the team.
Arkansas shot 30-of-60 overall from the field (50%), including an efficient 7-of-18 from 3 (38.9%). The Razorbacks struggled at the foul line going 19-of-31 (61.3%).
“I feel like we shoot the ball as a team really well and that helped us get on a run with those big threes,” Ellis said. “I just feel like guys just got to keep shooting with confidence. Because when we shoot the ball really well, we can get to the paint and draw free throw attempts.”
Defensively, Arkansas held Gardner-Webb to 25-of-72 field goal shooting (34.7%), including only 6-of-23 from 3 (26.1%). The Runnin’ Bulldogs were 12-of-31 on freebies (57.1%).
Arkansas won overall rebounds (46-40) but lost the offensive rebounding battle (11-7) as well as second-chance-points (14-7). The Hogs held advantages in fastbreak points (16-9) and bench scoring (40-19). Each team had 36 points-in-the-paint and each suffered 10 turnovers with Gardner-Webb winning points-off-turnovers (15-11). The Runnin’ Bulldogs more than doubled up the Hogs in steals (9-4).
Arkansas limited returning Big South All Conference guard DJ Nicholas to just 3 points on 1-of-9 field goal shooting. Wing Caleb Robinson led Gardner-Webb with 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 1 steal. Guard Julie Soumaoro had 15 points, 3 assists, and 2 steals. Big man Cheick Sissoko had 10 points and 6 rebounds.
Musselman remained perfect (35-0) in regular-season non-conference games played at BWA. He’s now 97-42 overall as Head Hog, which includes a 52-9 record against non-conference opponents and a 45-33 mark against SEC foes (all three marks include postseason results).
Next up, Arkansas will host the third of four consecutive home games at BWA against Old Dominion at 7 p.m. CT, Monday, Nov. 13 (livestream via SEC Network Plus).
Musselman started the quintet of Brazile, Davis, Mark, Ellis, and Lawson for the second consecutive game.
The visitor scored off the opening tip and used an uptempo, aggressive drive-to-the-basket game to surge ahead 13-5 in the early stages.
But the Hogs put together a balanced 15-4 run — Ellis (5 points 2-of-2 free throws followed by a triple), Mitchell (3 points and an assist to Mark for a layup), Davis (2 points on a pull-up jumper plus an assist to rim-running Mitchell), Mark (3 points), and Battle (3 points on 3-of-4 free throws) — to go up 20-17.
The teams remained in a lead-changing, one-possession margin for the next several minutes, but with Gardner-Webb ahead 31-29 it was Battle who exploded for 10 points (a pull-up right corner three, a crossover-to-stepback 17-footer, 2-of-2 free throws, and another triple working in a two-man screen game with Mitchell) as the catalyst for a sizeable 19-5 Arkansas run to close the first half while giving the Hogs their biggest lead, 48-36, at the break.
Battle (13 points) led the first-half scoring attack for the Hogs.
Arkansas made 16-of-31 field goals in the opening half (52.6%), including 4-of-9 from 3 (44.4%), and 12-of-18 at the free throw line (66.7%). Defensively, the Hogs held Gardner-Webb to 13-of-35 field goal shooting (37.1%), including only 4-of-13 from 3 (30.8%). The Runnin’ Bulldogs were 6-of-11 at the free throw line (54.5%) in the first half.
The Razorbacks were plus-3 on the glass (21-18) in the first half. Arkansas was plus-2 in both turnovers (6-4) and points-off-turnovers (7-5). Arkansas won bench scoring (23-14) and fastbreak points (7-4).