By Kevin McPherson
Facing a must-win scenario following the program’s worst start in league play in 14 years, the 25th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks put an end to their four-game losing skid while also moving out of the SEC cellar with a 69-57 triumph over unranked Ole Miss on Saturday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Freshman guard Anthony Black led four Hogs in double-figure scoring with 17 points to go with a career-high 8 assists and a career-high 5 steals, and the Hogs dug in defensively in the second half while building a 21-point lead as they finally won all three same-game battles of turnovers (17-11 with 12 steals for a 15-6 advantage in points-off-turnovers), three-point shooting (8-of-20 for 40% compared to Ole Miss’ 5-of-13 for 38.5%), and free throw shooting (9-of-17 for 52.9% compared to Ole Miss’ 6-of-13 for 46.2%).
Arkansas led 63-42 late before Ole Miss used a quick 11-1 run to pull within 64-53 with 4:21 to play, but unlike the Hogs’ unraveling on Wednesday when they surrendered a 10-point lead in the final 4:51 in a 79-76 road loss to Missouri, this time Arkansas never allowed the Rebels to pull within a single-digit deficit in the closing minutes.
“Just like, relief off your shoulder (to finally win again),” said Arkansas junior guard Devo Davis, who had 16 points (6-of-11 field goals, including 3-of-5 from 3, and 1-of-2 free throws), 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 3 turnovers in 34 minutes. “You know both teams were in desperation mode. We both came in needing a win and I think we handled our business.
“We had a little stretch close to the end of the game where we wasn’t sure if we know how that was going to go if you know what I mean after the last, previous games. I’m glad we pulled it off. It was a tiring win but we got it done.”
Freshmen Jordan Walsh and Joseph Pinion each scored 13 points, with Pinion matching his career-high in scoring as he made 3-of-6 from distance.
Arkansas (13-6, 2-5 SEC) came into Saturday’s matchup in a four-way tie for last place in the league after suffering losses in 5 of its previous 6 games to open league play, a pitiful stretch that last happened under former Hog coach John Pelphrey’s watch while opening the 2008-09 slate of league games (the ’08-09 Hogs would go on to finish 2-14 in SEC play).
These ’22-23 Razorbacks improved to 9-1 in home games on the season (they are 0-4 in true road games, all in SEC play, as part of a 4-5 record in all games played away from BWA).
It was the Hogs’ first victory since defeating then-No. 20 Missouri, 74-68, at home on Jan. 4, and it was their first double-digit-margin win since defeating North Carolina-Asheville, 85-51, at home a month ago (Dec. 21).
“We’re happy,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said of his team getting back on the winning track. “We’ll have a good dinner tonight with family and friends. It’s a little bit better than the alternative. I think our whole team really responded in the second half. I thought in the first half, we weren’t making shots. Maybe the flow wasn’t what we wanted offensively. But I thought in the second half defensively holding Ole Miss to 37%, defensive activity with steals. We were kind of doing what we do, which is create offense through our defense.
“And then certainly when we’re able to make threes, like Jordan Walsh did today and obviously Joseph Pinion, those two guys in particular, their three-point shots kind of opened up dribble-drive angles for other people.”
Defensively, the Hogs limited the Rebels to 11-of-29 field goal shooting in the second half (37.9%) after Ole Miss shot 52.2% in the first 20 minutes of the game. Ole Miss finished 23-of-52 overall shooting from the field (44.2%).
In addition to winning the aforementioed turnover, three-point shooting, and free throw shooting battles, the Hogs finished plus-1 on the glass (31-20), plus-1 in second-chance-points (7-6), and plus-8 in points-in-the-paint (36-28). Arkansas shot 26-of-57 overall from the field (45.6%).
Pinion — he was also the key first-half spark in the Hogs’ rally from a 17-point deficit to beat then-No. 20 Missouri by 6 points on Jan. 4 — added 5 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block with ZERO turnovers in his 22 minutes. Walsh was 5-of-9 shooting from the field, including 2-of-4 from 3, for his 13 points and he added 7 rebounds and 1 steal while playing all 40 minutes.
Senior twin big men Makhel and Makhi Mitchell both played off the bench as each scored 4 points with Makhel adding 5 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 blocks, and 1 assist in 21 minutes. The Hogs’ leading scorer, Ricky Council IV who came in averaging more than 18 points per game, struggled and managed 2 points, 1 rebound, 1 steal, and 3 turnovers in 18 minutes. He came out of the game early in the second half.
Davis was not only solid offensively in both halves, but he continued his consistently elite defensive play. In Arkansas’ last four games — against Alabama, Vanderbilt, Missouri, and Ole Miss — Davis has averaged 16.8 points (includes a collective 8-of-18 shooting from 3 for 44.4% and 9-of-11 free throw shooting for 81.8%), 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.0 steal, and 2.8 turnovers in 37.8 minutes per game while typically guarding the opposition’s best offensive player(s).
“You can look at Devo’s stat line and the 3 for 5 for threes and the 6 of 11 [overall], but his defense, it’s like every single night he’s taking a star player,” Musselman said. “And not doing a good job, but doing a phenomenal job from a defensive standpoint. I cannot talk enough about his defense. Even these games where we haven’t won, whether it’s (D’Moi) Hodge (of Missouri), whether it’s (Brandon) Miller with Alabama … I can go on and on at how he has defended at an incredible elite level.”
Ole Miss (9-10, 1-6 SEC) remains in last place in the league. The Rebels were led by Jayve McKinnis and Daeshun Ruffin, who each scored 10 points. Leading scorer Matthew Murrell (15.6 points per game coming in) was held to 3 points (1-of-5 field goals and 1-fo-2 free throws) with no rebounds or assists before he left the game in the second half with an injury. The Rebels did win fastbreak scoring (12-7) and bench scoring (28-21).
Arkansas improved to 52-33 all-time against Ole Miss as the Razorbacks have won five consecutive games (and 9 of the last 10) in the series.
The win over the Rebels (NET No. 103) counts as a Quad-3 result. Based on the current NCAA NET rankings, Arkansas (NET No. 28) is 1-4 in Q1 games that factor into their postseason resume (win over San Diego State in a neutral-site game, and losses to Missouri on the road, Alabama at home, Auburn on the road, and Creighton at a neutral site). The Hogs are 2-2 in Q2 games (home win over Mizzou and a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, and road losses to LSU and Vandy) and 10-0 in Q3/4 games.
Musselman improved to 4-0 as Head Hog coaching against Ole Miss. He’s 86-34 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 38-27 record against SEC teams and a 6-2 mark spanning the last two NCAA Tournaments that culminated in back-to-back Elite Eight runs and back-to-back final national Top 10 rankings.
Next up for the Hoop Hogs is another home game against LSU on Tuesday at BWA (6 p.m. CT, ESPN2).
Musselman started the combination of Council, Black, Davis, Walsh, and Kamani Johnson.
Davis struck early for a couple of buckets driving to the basket, then Walsh’s twisting finish off the window put the Hogs up 10-9. But Ole Miss’ 6-0 run put the Rebels ahead 15-10. Arkansas would scratch-and-claw to pull even at 21-all capped by a Makhel Mitchell dunk following a steal and set-up pass by Black.
The lead would see-saw a bit from there until Pinion scored all of the Razorbacks’ points in an 8-4 run that was good for a 32-29 Arkansas lead at halftime.
The Hogs shot 13-of-30 in the first half (43.3%), including 3-of-11 from 3 (27.5%) with Pinion contributing 2-of-2 of that total from distance. Arkansas was a dismal 3-of-8 at the free throw line in the first 20 minutes (37.5%).
Ole Miss had success shooting the ball by attacking the paint and rim, making 12-of-23 field goals (52.2%), including only 1-of-2 from 3 (50%). The Rebels were 4-of-6 at the foul line (66.7%).
Arkansas won the turnover battle in the first half (9-4) but managed only a plus-2 advantage in points-off-turnovers (8-6). Both teams collected 15 first-half rebounds.