FAYETTEVILLE — Coming in needing only 5 points to reach 1,000 in his Arkansas career, junior guard Mason Jones wasted no time in hitting that milestone before going off for his SEC-best seventh game of 30 or more points as Arkansas cruised to an 86-69 win over Tennessee on Wednesday in front of 14,100 fans at Bud Walton Arena.
Jones made 2-of-2 free throws for his 1,001st point just 4:02 into the game, and he rang up another 31 from there in finishing with 37 points to lead the Hogs (18-10, 6-9 SEC) to their second-consecutive win — both coming at home — following a 5-game losing streak.
The 17-point winning margin was the most for the Razorbacks against an SEC team since a 20-point win over Vanderbilt at BWA on Jan. 15, and it avenged Arkansas’s only blowout loss of the season — an 82-61 thumping against the Vols (15-13, 7-8 SEC) in Knoxville, Tenn., on Feb. 11.
Arkansas matched its win total from last season when the team finished 18-14 after a second-round exit from the NIT, but this group of Hogs under Eric Musselman in his first season as head coach is still in position to earn an NCAA tournament at-large bid with three more SEC regular-season games remaining before the SEC tournament begins in two weeks.
“I just thought the focus the last couple of days was phenomenal,” Musselman said of his team. “We talked over and over about trying to get off to a good start … We talked about trying to make adjustments the second time you play a team.”
Jones — who was 1-of-10 shooting while scoring only 9 points in the 21-point loss at Tennessee just 15 days ago — was 11-of-19 from the field, including 3-of-7 from 3, and 12-of-15 on free throws for his 37 points on Wednesday to go with 3 assists, 2 rebounds, and 1 steal in 37 minutes.
Jones regained the top spot in the SEC in scoring at 21.9 points per game. He has now scored at least 30 points nine times in his Arkansas career — including 5 times in the Hogs’to last 9 games — but until Wednesday the Hogs were only 1-5 in SEC games when he did.
In both wins, Jones got at least 22 points in support from a teammate. It was senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr. (26 pts) in an 82-78 win over Alabama on Feb. 1 when Jones led with 30 points, and against Tennessee on Wednesday it was sophomore Isaiah Joe who came through with 22 points to complement Jones’s 37.
Joe — back for just his second game after missing all of the 5-game skid while rehabilitating his injured right knee — provided 22 points (4-of-12 field goals, including 2-of-8 from 3, and 12-of-12 free throws), 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 drawn charges in 35 minutes.
Joe is averaging 21.5 points in the two games since his return as Arkansas defeated both Missouri and Tennessee by double-digit margins. The Hogs are 17-5 with him in the lineup, only 1-5 without him.
Jones and Joe became the first pair of Hogs to each make at least 12 free throws in a game, and Joe’s 12-of-12 effort was the most makes without a miss for a Hog in an SEC game (both stats courtesy of Hogstats.com).
“I think he’s (Jones) just every night, there’s such a burden to score,” Musselman. “Obviously with Isaiah coming back, it opens things up for both of them. When Mason’s scoring like he is it opens things up for Zai, and then just Isaiah being out on the floor opens things up for Mason.”
“I think both these guys are having incredible years, and Mason’s growth as a player has been fun to be a part of and watch.”
Jones said the weight of his big night had not registered with him yet.
“Just to get here is just amazing,” Jones said. “You know I really can’t just feel what I’m going through right now. Probably when I get to the house I’m gonna really dive in like ‘Wow, I scored a thousand points.’ I’m just happy that we got a win, and we’re on a two-game winning streak, and that’s how I like it.”
Joe and Jones had plenty of help.
Whitt had 6 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in 36 minutes, and defensively he held Vols’ star freshman guard Santiago Vescovi of Uruguay to 6 points, 0 assists, and 5 turnovers, which was quite a difference from Vescovi’s career highs of 20 points and 8 assists when Tennessee beat Arkansas by 21 points just 15 days ago.
Sophomore guard Desi Sills, playing off the bench for the second straight game, had a second straight strong performance — 13 points (5-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-5 from 3) and 4 rebounds in 31 minutes.
Sophomore forward Ethan Henderson made his second career start — and second in Arkansas’ last three games — and finished with 2 points, a career-high 9 rebounds, and a career-high-matching 3 blocks in a career-high 30 minutes.
“I thought defensively Jimmy Whitt was great on Santiago Vescovi,” Musselman said. “Obviously, Ethan Henderson’s energy on the glass was phenomenal tonight. Mason and Isaiah’s ability to draw free throw attempts. And again defending the three-point line becomes so important for us, and we did another great job of taking away the three-ball tonight.”
“I thought we played with great pace, you know 14-0 in fast break points. And then points off turnovers, although Tennessee didn’t have a high, high volume with just 12 turnovers we turned those into points. And I thought that was really a key to the game was live-ball turnovers as opposed to dead-ball turnovers.”
As a team, Arkansas won the turnover battle (12-7) while dominating points-off-turnovers (24-9) and fast-break-points (14-0). The Hogs lost the rebounding battle (31-28) and second-chance points (18-7).
Arkansas shot well for the second straight game, making 25-of-52 from the field (48.1%), including 9-of-23 from 3 (39.1%), and 27-of-33 free throws (81.8%).
Tennessee was 24-of-54 shooting (44.4%), but only 4-of-17 from 3 (23.5%), while making 17-of-27 free throws (63.0%).
The Vols were led by senior guard Jordan Bowden (19 points), forward John Fulkerson (15 points), and forward Yves Ponds (12 points and 9 rebounds).
Jones led Arkansas with 15 first-half points as the Hogs started the game on a 16-3 run followed by spurts of 8-2 and 10-3 en route to a 40-27 halftime lead.
Tennessee put together its own impressive 16-5 run to start the second half to pull within 45-43, but Jones, Joe, and Sills fueled a 27-11 Hogs’ surge from there to put the game away, 72-54, at the 6:36 mark.
Up next for Arkansas, the Razorbacks go back on the road to face Georgia on Saturday.