FAYETTEVILLE – With both scoring stars Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe first-half scoreless and Arkansas 1 for 11 on first half threes, the favored Razorbacks gave the Vanderbilt Commodores the chance to hang around. However, Jimmy Whitt’s inside job hung a 75-55 SEC defeat on the Commodores Wednesday night before 14,321 at Walton Arena.
Fifth-year senior graduate transfer guard via SMU, Whitt, scored a career high 30 points, including 17 when the Razorbacks really needed it in their 34-28 first half with Joe and Jones a combined 0 for 8 from the field including 0 for 8 on threes. Jones also a grabbed an Arkansas high eight rebounds as Arkansas controlled the boards, 38-30.
Whitt, averaging 30.6 points in his Hickman High School days in Columbia, but never tallied 30 as a 2015-2016 Razorbacks freshman under former Arkansas coach Mike Anderson or his two lettering years at SMU.
“I don’t think I’ve seen 30 points by name in five years,” Whitt, 14 of 23 in 2-point range Wednesday and 2 for 4 on free throws, said. “It’s a cool little milestone that’s never happened for me. And then for me, as a grad, I think it was cooler that I did it here rather than anywhere else, being able to come in my last year and reach a milestone like that in front of the fans I started with, I think it hit me right there and that was the coolest part for me.”
Fort Smith Northside alum Arkansas sophomore Joe heated up in the second half to hit four 3-pointers and score 12 points. Arkansas sophomore guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro, solid both halves, scored 13 points with seven rebounds and two steals and zero turnovers in 36 minutes, while backup center, Reggie Chaney, played big off the Razorbacks bench. Chaney matched his career high 14 points. Jones, 0 for 7 from the field, scored but one point, but still impacted the game with a game-high eight of Arkansas’ 19 assists, and corralled seven rebounds.
Even when Joe, 34 points in last Saturday’s SEC success at Ole Miss, and Jones weren’t scoring, they were helping Whitt score as did Chaney’s two assists, Whitt said. “We know a lot of teams are going to try to focus in on our two top guys,” Whitt said. “So I think I was able to just take advantage tonight of those gray areas, get behind the defense’s eyes, get into spots that I’m comfortable with. You’ve got to credit guys like Reggie, Mase, being able to get me the ball in those positions and me finishing on the other end.”
First-year coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks advance to 14-2 overall, 3-1 in the SEC going into Saturday’s 3 p.m. ESPN SEC game against the nationally No. 10 Kentucky Wildcats at Walton. First-year Vandy coach Jerry Stackhouse’s Commodores, losing SEC leading scorer Aaron Nesmith and his 23.0 scoring averaged to a season-ending knee injury two game ago, fall to 8-8, 0-3 in the SEC and Saturday in Nashville host SEC instate rival Tennessee.
Saben Lee, Vandy’s best player with Nesmith with out, was held scoreless in the first half, but erupted for 17 points in the second half. Vanderbilt junior guard Maxwell Evans scored 16 all in the first half.
Musselman said his defense so overplayed on Lee in the first half half that it opened Evans for his surprising output. The Hogs played their normal defense in the second half which snuffed Evans, but Lee “went off,” in the second half, Musselman said. Lee’s second-half 17 proved too little too late with Whitt, Sills and Chaney on a roll both halves and Joe hitting those four second half-treys. Whitt had Vandy’s number though Musselman never calls Whitt’s number like he calls plays for Joe, Jones and Sills or inside to Adrio Bailey.
“The amazing thing is I didn’t call one play for him tonight,” Musselman said. “Not one play. He just figured out how to find open gaps and he catches it and releases it over people. Really one of the most efficient players and unique players that I’ve ever coached.”
In Musselman’s doghouse for picking up a technical foul in Arkansas’ 2-point SEC loss at LSU and generally struggling in other areas recently, Chaney logged 22 excellent minutes Wednesday hitting 6 of 6 from the field and 2 for 2 from the line with three rebounds and two assists subbing for Bailey limited to 17 minutes by foul trouble. “It felt really good just to help my team out,” sophomore letterman Chaney said. “The last couple of games I know I’ve been struggling, but just to come out and be ready, it felt real good. Tonight they trusted me.”
The trust paid off. “Certainly tonight Reggie was awesome,” Musselman said. “Really proud of how he finished around the rim and I thought he played with great intensity on the backboards, as well. We did a great job on the defensive backboards tonight. Plus eight on the boards. I thought Desi and Jimmy Whitt were just awesome defensive rebounding the basketball.”
Normally if the Hogs outrebound any foe for a first half and only commit two turnovers they’ll lead by plenty. They did both in Wednesday’s first half, yet only led 34-28. Of course, normally both Jones and Joe and their combined 37.6 scoring average aren’t both scoreless for a half with the team 1 for 11 for treys including 0 for its 9.
The team’s first 3-pointer through the nets didn’t count because Jones was whistled for traveling as he shot it. A spectacular shot-block by Whitt preceded Sills’s three at 1:22 with the crowd roaring for a 32-26 lead. Whitt scored the half’s final points with 22 seconds left. With no choice with the ball and the half about to end, Whitt attempted his first trey in 16 games but missed. For his inside range Whitt connected 8 of 12 plus 1 of 2 from the line to score 17 first-half points.
Backup center Chaney was Arkansas’s surprising second-leading first-half scorer tallying eight points on a perfect 3 for 3 from the field and 2 for 2 from the line. Sills’ seven rebounds led Arkansas, 20-17 advantage on the first-half boards. Vanderbilt leading by as much as three even with Lee first-half scoreless, got a surprising 16 first-half points from Evans more than doubling his 7.4 season scoring average in the first 20 minutes. Vandy twice cut the Arkansas lead to four early in the second half but consecutive Joe treys and a Whitt dunk started Arkansas to a 50-35 lead from which the Hogs never looked back.
photos by Craven Whitlow, CW3 SportsAction