FAYETTEVILLE – Desi Sills finished what he didn’t start joining starters Jimmy Whitt and Mason Jones for a combined 58 points of Arkansas’ 78-67 SEC vs. Big 12 Challenge victory over the TCU Horned Frogs Saturday at Walton Arena.
Coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks, snapping a 2-game losing streak and advancing to 15-4 overall going into Wednesday night’s SEC game against South Carolina at Walton, played minus Isaiah Joe, their second-leading scorer. Joe was sidelined by inflammation in a knee aggravated in last Wednesday’s SEC loss at Mississippi State.
The Hogs responded “playing their best game of the year on both sides of the ball,” Musselman said against Coach Jamie Dixon’s Horned Frogs, coming off a Big 12 victory over reigning national runner-up Texas Tech but now dropped to 13-6 before their next game hosting Big 12 rival Texas in Fort Worth.
Whitt and Jones each scored a team-high 20 points.
Whitt played the entire 40 minutes holding TCU shooting star Desmond Bane, 27 points his last game in TCU’s Big 12 victory over reigning national runner-up Texas Tech to eight points.
Sills scored 18 points off the bench while Arkansas junior guard Jalen Harris dished a game-high six assists.
Kevin Samuel, TCU’s large 6-11, 250 center, posted a large double-double 24 points and 18 rebounds gut it was wasn’t enough with Whitt holding in check including a scoreless first half.
“I don’t know that there’s a college guard defensively that can do any more than Jimmy Whitt’s doing,” Musselman said. “He didn’t allow Bane to catch the ball at all.”
As a former NBA head coach and NBA assistant, Musselman knows a NBA defender when he sees one.
“I’ve been around two NBA level defenders,” Musselman said of head coaching collegians at Nevada and now Arkansas. “Cody Martin, whose obviously in the NBA (Charlotte Hornets) now and Jimmy Whitt. Those are two NBA defenders that I’ve coached at the college level.”
Losing last Saturday’s 73-66 SEC game to Kentucky before a sold-out Walton Arena followed by last Wednesday’s 77-70 SEC loss at Mississippi State made Saturday’s game before another 19,200 sellout “a game we had to win,” Musselman said.
The Hogs, Musselman said, played with “next man up,” urgency starting Harris for Joe (Joe will continue to be evaluated before Wednesday’s game with South Carolina) and starting 6-8 Reggie Chaney in place of Sills, who had played poorly against Mississippi State.
Chaney struggled early causing Sills’ entrance at 18:45. The 6-1 sophomore from Jonesboro scored 11 in the first half which Arkansas led, 33-29 at intermission even with no Joe and a foul-troubled Jones scoring a solitary point in nine first half minutes.
For the game, his first off the bench after 18 starts, Sills scored 18 hitting 7 of 8 from the field including 3 for 3 of Arkansas’ 6 for 9 threes.
Musselman didn’t know Joe couldn’t go until Saturday morning but had already told Sills Friday that he wouldn’t be starting Saturday regardless.
“You have a difficult conversation and you hope a young player handles it the right way,” Musselman said. “I’m really proud how he handled it. He could have pouted but he had his best practice yesterday (Friday) and he was awesome off the bench today.”
No dissent on that from TCU’s Dixon.
“Sills was big for them obviously,” Dixon said. “He hadn’t been shooting like that, but he did today.. And that killed us. The efficiency, 18 points on eight shots, that’s a pretty good performance. We simply didn’t defend well enough to win on the road, and that’s on me.”
Pouting about not starting would have been on him, Sills said.
“Coach called J5 up and I had to be ready,” Sills said. “I couldn’t get down or nothing. It’s all about next man up. I just had to be prepared and do what I have to do to help this team win.”
TCU superbly defended Jones in the first half but not the second. Jones erupted for 19 points the final 20 minutes.
Chaney, yanked in the first half after an early turnover and yanked again after missing a dunk, poured in a 6-point second-half flurry from 17:52 to 16:09 putting Arkansas up 46-37.
“That was big,” Musselman said. “I was going to change the second-half lineup as well, but wanted to give Reggie an opportunity to go back out there and I thought he played much better in the second half, for sure.”
Down 51-46 was the closest TCU got after the Chaney flurry but a technical foul called on Dixon even as Whitt was dribbling with nobody open and the shot clock dwindling quickly got Arkansas up eight and sufficiently comfortable to milk the clock the final six minutes.
“I said ‘’’Carry,” Dixon said of his technical that he said merely was his opinion that Whitt carried the ball on the dribble. “Carry. No, bad words. Nothing. ‘Carry.”
Was he surprised carrying a technical for that?
“Yes,” Dixon said. “Very surprised.”
Almost as surprised as he was by Desi Sills.
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3, Sports Action