FAYETTEVILLE — In a game billed as Arkansas’s 3-point defense versus South Dakota’s 3-point offense, it was senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr.’s wizardry in the mid-range game that fed his career-high-tying 24 points Friday night to lead the Razorbacks over the previously unbeaten Coyotes, 77-56, on Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena.
Whitt — he also scored 24 points at SMU last season playing against Cincinnati — made 11-of-14 field goals and 2-of-3 free throws for his 24 points to go with a team-high-tying 7 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 assist, and 1 block in 35 minutes. He scored the Hogs’ first four points and kept scoring throughout the game, mostly on mid-range answer-buckets whenever the Coyotes threatened to whittle Arkansas’s double-digit lead down to single digits.
South Dakota closed within 62-52 at the 7-minute mark when Whitt pulled up for a 17-footer that sparked a 13-0 run to put the game away.
“For all those analytic guys that think a mid-range game is gone out of basketball, welcome to Jimmy Whitt’s world,” said Head Hog Eric Musselman, whose unbeaten start through five games in Fayetteville is matched only by Nolan Richardson (1985-86) and Eugene Lambert (1942-43). “I thought Jimmy, his shot selection’s so good. Everytime he shoots it’s a good shot, it’s close to the rim, he elevates over the defense.”
Whitt said his teammates urged him to look for his offense throughout the game.
“I had the hot hand, and my teammates downcourt everytime were telling me to shoot it,” Whitt said. “It was just one of those games where I could get to my spots, and they were encouraging me. So, just for me being able to knock them down to keep that 10- or 12-point lead helped us along the way.”
Arkansas (5-0) came in with a defense ranked in the Top 10 nationally in multiple defensive categories — scoring defense, 3-point-field-goal defense, overall field-goal defense, turnovers forced, and steals — while South Dakota (5-1) led the nation in 3-point field-goal shooting at 51.1%.
The Razorbacks were not as stifling defensively as they had been, but they did limit the Coyotes well below their season percentages — 22-of-55 field goals (40.0%) including 3-of-12 from 3 (25.0%) — while winning the rebounding battle (36-30) and turnovers (13-8).
Arkansas — which recorded 8 steals and 6 blocks in the game — held its first 5 opponents in a season each to fewer than 60 points. The last time that happened was the 1975-76 campaign — the first season that the fames Triplets were together in Fayetteville (historical data courtesy of Hogstats.com).
“Obviously coming into the game 3-point defense was really going to be the name of the game,” Musselman said. “I thought our guys stepped up to the challenge of defending the 3-point line. Holding South Dakota to three threes is not easy. You look at the box scores of their first five games. They did an incredible job of knocking down threes prior to tonight. They are well coached. They execute. They cut hard. Their players understand their roles. I think they are going to have a great season. They are a team that I think can win their league for sure.”
“We changed our pick and roll defense and we switched and went to an immediate deny which we have not done here in the first four games. It’s something that we did against Davidson a few years ago that loved to take a lot of three and their center could shoot threes. I thought our perimeter guys did a great job of switching to a deny.”
The Hogs shot 31-of-66 from the field (47.0%), but subtract Whitt’s night shooting the ball and the rest of the team was only 20-of-52 (38.8%). And once again, Arkansas was ineffective from 3, making only 4 of 20 attempts for 20.0%.
Leading scorer and assister Isaiah Joe had his second off-shooting night in the past three games as he scored only 5 points (2-of-10 field goals, including 1-of-6 from 3), although he did contribute a game-high 5 assists to go with 5 rebounds in 35 minutes.
Junior guard Mason Jones bounced back from a rough outing against Texas Southern, scoring 11 of his 14 points in the second half. He also had a team-high-tying 7 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 block in his 33 minutes.
Sophomore guard Desi Sills made his first 3-point basket of the season, going 1-of-6 from beyond the arc as he finished with 7 points, 3 rebounds, 3 steals, and 1 assist in 24 minutes. Senior forward Adrio Bailey had 7 points, 3 rebounds, 3 steals in 21 minutes.
Arkansas got its most productive game to date from its bench.
Junior guard Jalen Harris had 8 points, 2 assists, and 1 rebound in 23 minutes off the bench. Junior forward Reggie Chaney finished with 6 points, 3 blocks, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in 14 minutes.
Senior-graduate-transfer forward Jeantal Cylla had a season-high 7 points — all in the first half — on a night that he reached 1,000 career points.
Arkansas effectively shut down versatile South Dakota big man Tyler Hagedorn (6-10 senior) from the perimeter, holding him to 0-of-2 from 3 after he entered the game having made 16-of-19 from 3 for 83.2%. He finished with 15 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists.
Junior 6-6 guard Stanley Umude — the Summit League preseason Player of the Year pick — chipped in 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 1 block, while guard Cody Kelley was 2-of-6 from 3 on his way to scoring 10 points.
As has been the recent trend, Whitt did the early scoring for the Hogs, including the first four points en route to scoring a team-high 10 points to pace Arkansas to a 39-24 halftime lead.
The Hogs used an 18-2 run to grab a 30-11 lead. After a 10-3 South Dakota spurt to pull within 33-21, Whitt converted a three-point play on a drive inside to push Arkansas ahead 36-21 at the 36-21 mark.
Arkansas held South Dakota to 10-of-30 field goal shooting (33.3%), including 1-of-6 from 3 (16.7%) in the first half. The Razorbacks also won rebounding (22-17) and turnovers (6-5) in the first 20 minutes.
Arkansas finished its season-opening five-game homestand unbeaten, but now moves on to face Georgia Tech (2-1 with a win over North Carolina State) in Atlanta. Tip is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT on Monday and the game will be televised by ACC Network.