FAYETTEVILLE – For their stunning 55-34 first half the Arkansas Razorbacks not only had the LSU Tigers by the tail but the throat.
In the second half it was the Razorbacks gagging on missed free throws nearly undoing what otherwise would have been Coach Eric Musselman’s masterfully master plan of running second half clock.
Ultimately, despite missing eight consecutive free throws and seeing their 21-point lead shrink as low as seven, the Razorbacks prevailed, 99-90 Wednesday on Senior Night at Walton Arena.
Avenging their 79-77 loss on Jan. 8 to LSU in Baton Rouge ups the Razorbacks to 19-11 overall, 7-10 in the SEC going into their SEC regular season finale Saturday at Texas A&M.
Coach Will Wade’s tied with Auburn for second-place Tigers fall to 20-10, 11-6 going into their SEC season finale in Baton Rouge against Georgia.
Junior guard Mason Jones, 36 points with 10 of 14 from the field including 4 of 6 treys, and 12 of 14 from the free throw line , and senior graduate transfer Jimmy Whitt, scoring 26 on Senior Night with an amazing game leading 15 rebounds against the Tigers that outrebounded Arkansas, 53-24 in Baton Rouge, plus team leading five assists, led the Razorbacks while guards Desi Sills and Isaiah Joe scored 13 and 11 points. Forward Ethan Henderson scored 10 points with six rebounds.
Skylar Mays, 28 points, led LSU with 21 during the Tigers’ second-half comeback. Emitt Williams scored 16 and Javonte Smart, fouling out, and Trendon Watford each scored 14 points
Their NCAA Tournament at large hopes all but in a casket after losing, 99-89 to a now 15-14 Georgia team last Saturday in Athens, Ga., it’s conceivable if they can win Saturday at A&M that the Razorbacks could arrive at next week’s SEC Tournament in Nashville back on the at large bubble.
“We knew we had to win tonight for sure,” Musselman said of the bubble hopes that he left at that.
All the Hogs can do is their part. They did that Wednesday, especially on the boards with Whitt’s 15 helping the Hogs reduce the 53-24 board deficit at Baton Rouge to 40-35 Wednesday night.
“Just thought our defensive rebounding in in the first half we were overly focused and played as physical as we’ve played all season long,” Musselman said. “Got off to a great start against a very talented team to lead for 36 minutes out of the game.”
Wade credited Jones’ scoring but said it was Whitt, “who we can’t guard, who controlled the game “with his 26, 15 and five.”
The 15 rebounds, particularly the 14 on the defensive glass, had Musselman marveling about his 6-3 guard outrebounding all those Tigers that erased the boards in Baton Rouge.
“I thought the biggest thing with Jimmy was his defensive rebounding,” Musselman said. “To come in the game against an awesome defensive rebounding team with great length and athleticism and to think he’s going to have 14 defensive rebounds. Man, I don’t know if we had 14 defensive rebounds in the entire last game that we played LSU.”
LSU opened the game with 2-0, 4-2 and 4-3 leads.
Then Sills hit two threes off the bench for a 9-4 lead en route to Arkansas’ stunning 55-34 lead at intermission.
As stunning as the score, the same Tigers who outrebounded Arkansas. 53-24 in Baton Rouge, were outrebounded most of the half and finished it just up 20-19 on the boards.
The Razorbacks discovered rebounding more caused them fouling considerably less.
Arkansas committing just seven first-half fouls allowed but one LSU first half one and one.
Meanwhile the Razorbacks induced 16 LSU fouls and shot 16 of 22 from the first-half free throw line to LSU’s 7 of 11 and plunged Tigers Darius Days, Javonte Smart, Marlon Taylor and Emmitt Williams into foul trouble with three fouls each.
By 14:32 of second half all four had committed their fourth foul.
Days, 16 points and 16 rebounds on Arkansas in Baton Rouge, fouled out at 2:47 with just four points and three rebounds.
Jones, finishing the half with a 4-point play fouled on a sprawling 3-pointer three seconds before intermission, tallied 20 first-half points.
Whitt scored 12 first-half points while leading the board work with seven rebounds.
Sills, 10 first-half points, and 6-8 sophomore forward Ethan Henderson, seven points and four rebounds, were huge igniting Arkansas’ fast start on both ends of the floor.
“I thought Desi’s offensive spurt in that first half offensively opened up the floor for Mason a lot,” Musselman said. “Obviously, Ethan is just kind of a different athlete for us, when he goes in there and rebounds in traffic we are a much better defensive team and we are certainly a much better defensive rebounding team.”
Arkansas appeared to have it well in hand until clanking 4 of its first 14 second half free throws, including the eight consecutive misses, before Jones connected two freebies at 5:54
A Watford steal and lay-up got to down to 87-80 at 1:56 and a Watford trey narrowed it back down seven 90-83 at 1:06 before Jones, 12 of 14 from the line, again hit two freebies.
For the game, Arkansas made 36 of 54 free throws with the Tigers needlessly fouling too much in the first half and fouling because they needed to trying to catch up in the second half.
“We made the game way closer than it was supposed to be by missing free throws at the end of the game,” Jones said. “We were playing with the devil and the devil was killing us. When you look up at the scoreboard it goes from a 20-point lead to a 7-point lead. We just calmed down, got us a couple buckets to get us back the lead and we had enough push power to finish the game.”
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3 Sports Action