FAYETTEVILLE — Preseason All SEC pick Isaiah Joe once again saved his best for last, scoring 11 of his game-high-tying 17 points in the final 8:28 as the Arkansas Razorbacks turned a late two-point lead into a 69-59 win over Texas A&M on Saturday in front of 19,200 fans at Bud Walton Arena in the league opener for both teams.
Arkansas (12-1 and 1-0 SEC) is off to its best start through the first 13 games of a season since 2008-09, and Eric Musselman now owns the best record at Arkansas for a first-year head coach through the first 13 games.
The Razorbacks have won four games in a row while snapping the Aggies’ three-game winning streak, and Arkansas has beaten Texas A&M (6-6, 0-1) in back-to-back SEC openers.
The Hogs have the best active homecourt run of wins (11 consecutive) in the SEC, and the 19,200 fans were the most in official attendance at BWA since a win over Georgia in March 2009.
“The crowd’s energy was insanely awesome,” Musselman said. “I had a buddy in from the Bay Area and he said he’s never heard an arena that loud in his life. It was awesome to have the former Razorback players with us today at shoot-around and around all day and then be able to attend the game.
“I’m happy we won our first league game.”
With Arkansas holding a 52-50 lead while playing with a five-guard lineup, Joe beat the shot-clock buzzer with a 3-pointer to give the Hogs a 5-point cushion with 8:28 to play, and from there he hit two more triples and a two-pointer as Arkansas finished the game on a 17-9 run for the final winning margin.
During that closing run, the Hogs’ defense forced six turnovers and held the Aggies scoreless in the final 3:35.
Joe was named SEC Co-Player of the Week on Monday following his 24-point, 5-rebound effort to lead Arkansas’s 71-64 come-from-behind win over Indiana on Dec. 29. He scored 15 of Arkansas’s final 32 points in that game, and now Joe has scored 47 combined second-half points out of his 62 total points spanning the last three games — all close-call wins for the Hogs.
Against the Aggies, Joe was 6-of-14 shooting (including 5-of-12 from 3 for 41.7%) for his 17 points to go with 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and only 1 turnover in 39 minutes.
Junior guard Mason Jones — he’s made his share of clutch, deficit-to-lead swing-shots in recent games — also had 17 points (11 in the first half) to go with a team-high 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, and only 1 turnover in 37 minutes.
“Isaiah and Mason are going to have the ball in their hands the last eight minutes of every game we play that’s a tight game,” Musselman said. “That’s just how it’s going to be every game. And then we’re going to make the opposition try to figure out how to get the ball out of their hands or how to contest their shots, or whatever.
“The great thing about both of those guys is their court vision and ability to dribble the basketball and create for themselves and create for others.”
Sophomore guard Desi Sills finished with 13 points (including 11 in the first half), 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 assist, and no turnovers in 30 minutes.
Senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr., had 12 points, 4 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block in 37 minutes.
Junior guard Jalen Harris played 31 minutes off the bench and had 6 points, 4 rebounds, a game-high 5 assists, 2 steals, and no turnovers.
That quintet of guards — Joe, Jones, Sills, Whitt, and Harris — played on the floor together covering the final 12:12 of the game after senior forward Adrio Bailey picked up his fourth foul.
“Were were obviously concerned about rebounding,” Musselman said of playing with a small-ball lineup down the stretch. “We do a great job when a shot goes up of just kind tipping it and keeping it alive and hoping one of our guys out-reacts somebody. For Mason and Isaiah to lead us in rebounding, I think they combined for 11 boards, it was phenomenal.”
“But I thought that small group was really good getting defensive stops when we needed it.”
It was yet another defensive, grind-game win for the Razorbacks, who overcame late deficits (down 8 against Valparaiso, and down 9 at Indiana) with significant scoring runs to pull out wins in their last two games before needing another spurt to put away the Aggies.
“I think just chalk that up to conference play,” Whitt said. “We knew they were going to come out and play hard, play well. So you’ve got to give credit to them. But it was one of those games you need in conference play to show you can grind it out, even when things may not be going your way or how you want them to.
“I’m not too disappointed in how it went. I thought we needed it personally.”
Arkansas shot 54.2% field goals in the first half while building a 42-33 lead at the break, but the Hogs were cold to start the final 20 minutes as Texas A&M put the clamps on defensively while chipping away at the lead to pull within 52-50 with 9:01 to play. The Hogs were held scoreless for 5 minutes and 53 seconds (from the 15:45 mark to 9:52 remaining in the second half).
For the game, Arkansas was 24-of-58 field goals for 41.4%, including 10-of-29 from 3 for 34.5%. The Hogs were 11-of-15 at the foul line for 73.3%, but they made 1 of only 2 attempts in the entire second half.
Arkansas was minus-7 in rebounding (34-27) for the game, but the Hogs stayed close against the bigger Aggies in both second-chance-points (9-7 for minus-2) and points-in-the-paint (26-22 for minus-4). Conversely, Arkansas finished plus-8 in turnovers (17-9) after being minus-1 in that category at halftime (7-6), and the Hogs were plus-10 in points-off-turnovers (17-7).
Texas A&M shot 21-of-45 from the field for 46.7%, including 4-of-14 from 3 for 28.6%, and 13-of-20 from the free throw line for 65.0%.
Freshman guard Andre Gordon led A&M with 15 points and 3 assists. Senior big man Josh Nebo had a double-double — 10 points and 13 rebounds — and senior guard Wendell Mitchell finished with 13 points and 5 rebounds.
“I think we have to shorten the game for our roster to have its best chance,” first-year Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams said. “I thought in many respects we played to the scouting report. Coach (Musselman) has done an incredible job relative to their execution. If you study their defensive numbers, they are through the roof. I think offensively all of those guys are very comfortable in what they are doing. I think they are aware of who’s shooting and when. There is unquantifiable value in that.”
“We have a negative margin from the tip. I thought our preparation was good. I thought we handled an incredible basketball environment in many respects about as well as we could. It’s just so hard for us to overcome the turnover rate that we have. I don’t know the exact number but it was very high (late in both halves).”
Arkansas closed the first half on a 12-3 spurt for a 42-33 lead at the break as Jones (triple plus triple-and-one) and Sills (triple to beat the halftime buzzer) provided all the scoring in the run.
The Razorbacks finished the first half 7-of-9 on two-point baskets and 6-of-15 from 3 for 54.2% overall field goal shooting. They made 10-of-13 free throws for 75%.
Following their win over Texas A&M, the Razorbacks are back on the road for SEC games at LSU on Wednesday, Jan. 8, and at Ole Miss on Saturday, Jan. 11. The Hogs will then return home for games against Vanderbilt on Wednesday, Jan. 15, and Kentucky on Saturday, Jan. 18.