By Kevin McPherson
FAYETTEVILLE — In a fight for their NCAA Tournament lives, the Arkansas Razorbacks were less than hospitable against visiting Florida on Saturday as the Hoop Hogs administered an 84-65 pummeling of the Gators at Bud Walton Arena.
Arkansas (18-9, 7-7 SEC) snapped its two-game losing streak while moving to 12-2 in home games on the season.
Senior reserve forward Jalen Graham had a career-high 26 points (12-of-15 field goals and 2-of-3 free throws) to go with 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in 27 minutes while leading five Hogs in double-figure scoring in a matchup Arkansas dominated at both ends of the floor, especially to open the second half when the Hogs used a 17-2 run to expand a 6-point halftime lead to a 54-33 advantage that would swell to a 25-point lead down the stretch.
The Razorbacks shot 34-of-59 from the field (57.6%) for the game, including 2-of-10 from 3 (20%), and 14-of-17 at the free throw line (82.4%). Defensively, the Hogs held the Gators to 22-of-59 field goal shooting (37.3%), including 4-of-21 from 3 (19.0%). Florida made 17-of-21 at the line (81.0%).
Arkansas owned bench scoring (45-25), points-in-the-paint (52-36), rebounding (40-25), second-chance-points (15-6), points-off-turnovers (17-10), and fastbreak points (14-8).
In addition to Graham’s big game, senior forward / center Makhi Mitchell had a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a game-high boxscore plus-27 in 20 minutes); junior guard Ricky Council IV had 15 points (6-of-10 field goals and 3-of-4 free throws) and 7 rebounds in 33 minutes off the bench; freshman guard Anthony Black had 14 points (3-of-6 field goals, including 1-of-1 from 3, & 7-of-8 free throws), 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals in 35 minutes; and playing in just his third game since mid-December, freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., started and had 10 points (4-of-12 field goals, including 0-of-4 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws), 2 steals, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and a boxscore plus-23 in 32 minutes.
“I thought we played really, really hard,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said. “I thought we played very connected. We wanted to get to the basket and get points in the paint. Fifty-two points in the paint is a large number. I thought we did a really good job rebounding the basketball, and those were two points of emphasis coming into the game. I thought we did a good job not settling from the perimeter.
“Bench play was excellent. Jalen Graham had great matchups tonight and he certainly capitalized big time from an offensive standpoint. And then I thought Jalen did a really good job on the glass with seven boards and two blocked shots. Overall, a really, really good performance by a lot of guys across the board.”
The Razorbacks are now 3-2 in February in ’22-23 after the program had lost only one game in its 14 February tilts spanning the ’20-21 and ’21-22 campaigns.
Arkansas improved to 15-26 all-time against Florida as the Hogs have won three consecutive games in the series spanning the past three seasons.
Florida (14-13, 7-7 SEC) was coming off a 79-64 mid-week home win over Ole Miss, but the victory was costly as the Gators’ best player — veteran big man Colin Castleton (16.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.0 blocks, and 2.7 assists per game) — broke his hand during the game and consequently was out of the lineup against the Hogs on Saturday.
Florida was led by freshman guard Riley Kugel (17 points) and sophomore guard Will Richard (10 points).
The win over the Gators (NET No. 51) counts as a Quad-2 result. Based on the current NCAA NET rankings, Arkansas (NET No. 21) is 2-6 in Q1 games that factor into its postseason resume (a win at Kentucky, a win over San Diego State in a neutral-site game, and losses to Texas A&M on the road, Baylor on the road, Missouri on the road, Alabama at home, Auburn on the road, and Creighton at a neutral site). The Hogs are now 5-2 in Q2 games (home wins over Florida, Texas A&M, Missouri, and Bradley, a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home loss to Mississippi State, and a road loss to Vanderbilt), and they are 11-1 in Q3/4 games.
Musselman improved to 91-37 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 43-29 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.
“We’ve talked a lot about how historically we’ve been so good in the second half,” Musselman said of his 2022-23 up-and-down season. “And for whatever reason this year, in the games we’ve lost, we have not been good in the second half.
“And what’s the reason for that? Because we’re talking about the same things that we have for seven years. And today was a step in the right direction, playing better in the second half coming out on that 17-2 run. That’s a hard thing to do out of halftime, to come out and defend at the level we did to start the second half.”
Next up for the Hoop Hogs is another home SEC game against Georgia on Tuesday at BWA (8 p.m. CT, SEC Network).
Musselman started the combination of Smith, Black, Davonte “Devo” Davis, Jordan Walsh, and Makhi Mitchell.
With Arkansas trailing 19-14, Smith scored 6 points on two runner-and-1’s to highlight a 16-4 run that put the Hogs ahead 30-23 late in the first half.
Graham had 6 of the Hogs’ final 7 points of the first half as Arkansas led 37-31 at the break.
Graham led the team with 12 points in the first 20 minutes while Smith added 8 points.
Arkansas shot 15-of-27 from the field (55.6%) in the opening half, including 0-of-5 from 3, and 7-of-8 from the free throw line (87.5%). Defensively, the Razorbacks held Florida to 9-of-30 from the field (30.0%), including 1-of-11 from 3 (9.1%). The Gators stayed close with 12-of-16 shooting at the foul line (75.0%) in the first half.
Arkansas was plus-5 in rebounds (20-15), minus-4 in turnovers (7-3), plus-6 in points-in-the-paint (22-16), and plus-12 in bench scoring (20-8).