FAYETTEVILLE – Mississippi State got the grinding game it craved but ultimately the Arkansas Razorbacks wrought the revenge they sought.
Beaten 81-68 by Mississippi State’s Bulldogs in the Dec. 29 SEC opener at Starkville, Miss., the Razorbacks avenged winning a 63-55 SEC defensive struggle Saturday night before a Walton Arena full house.
Arkansas’ eighth consecutive victory ups Coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks to 18-5 overall/7-3 in the SEC heading into Tuesday night’s 6 o’clock ESPN2 televised game at Walton against the SEC leading nationally No. 1 Auburn Tigers, 22-1 overall, 10-0 in the SEC.
Coach Ben Howland’s Bulldogs fell to 14-8/5-4 and host Tennessee in Wednesday night’s SEC game at Starkville.
Averaging 73 points per game, Mississippi State scored 81 on the Hogs in Starkville capitalizing on Arkansas’ poor defense and poor rebounding and poor ball handling.
Both teams measured up defensively Saturday. On the boards, Arkansas went from down 39-31 in Starkville to up 39-38 Saturday and committed but six turnovers to State’s 12 after committing 17 miscues in Starkville.
Apparently fancying they could can the 15 of 28 treys, they unexpectedly canned in last Wednesday’s 99-73 victory at Georgia, the Razorbacks fired 13 first-half treys Saturday night. They hit only one. They hit but 8 of 30 first-half shots and only connected 8 of 16 free throws in a grinding 25-25 first half standoff.
Arkansas second half improved finishing 23 of 61 for the game from the field including 4 of 19 treys.
“I thought the first half was very hard fought,” Howland said. “I thought our defense was really good. We struggled to score, they struggled to score. The second half, I thought our offense struggled to score and their offense became much more patient. They were much more patient than we were and it allowed them to get out to that lead.”
“We just got 3-ball happy,” Musselman said. “We took like 13 at half and we made one more than I made.”
Three makes down the second half stretch by Razorbacks Devo Davis, Jaylin Williams and Chris Lykes made the difference.
With Arkansas only up 53-52, 6-10 center Williams popped a three for what would prove an insurmountable 56-52 lead with 1:48 left.
State cut it to 56-54 before sophomore sixth man guard Davis hit a shot-clock beating deuce for a 58-54 lead at 1:01.
Lykes, a co-sixth man guard scoring 10 points, eschewed the patience with 25 seconds left but was applauded. For while he could have run more clock, the three Lykes made ran away with the game 61-54 before free throws wrapped it 63-55.
“The shots down the stretch,” Musselman said on postgame radio, “Devo’s pull-up jumper at the top of the key. J-Will’s 3-ball and then Chris Lykes’ three in transition. All three huge shots. Really proud how this team took care of the basketball. Only six turnovers against a very good defensive team in Mississippi State, an excellent rebounding team and we win the rebounding battle by plus one.”
All eight Razorbacks played ranged in rebounding from Davis’ one to Williams’ nine to go with Williams’ 10 points. Along with leading scorer JD Notae, 14 points and six rebounds Saturday after missing the game in Starkville because of illness, reserve power forward Kamani Johnson provided six rebounds and seven points in 12:30.
“Kamani Johnson’s rebounds per minute are incredibly positive for us,” Musselman said. “His energy and toughness certainly gives us a different look.”
Tough defined the Hogs, Johnson said on postgame radio.
“All week our coaches talked to us about how they outrebounded us the last game,” Johnson said. “We had a goal to hold them to nine offensive rebounds and I think we did that. (State just got eight). We came out here ready to be the tougher team. Now we’ve got to get ready for Auburn.”
Garrison Brooks, 6-9 Bulldogs center, most battled Arkansas inside with a 12 points/11 rebounds double-double.
Though shooting only 4 of 16 including 0 for 6 o threes, Notae with 14 points, six rebounds, two steals and four assists vs. one turnover obviously provided something Arkansas lacked without him in Starkville.
“He changes everything.,” Musselman said. “You could tell that they were worried about JD Notae with the ball in his hands. That opens things up for other people as well.”
Arkansas entered concerned about superb State point guard Iverson Molinar, 16 points and five assists vs. Arkansas in Starkville, and a game-leading 19 points Saturday but with zero treys and only one assist vs. three turnovers.
“He’s a really, really, really, really special player,” Musselman said. “But we didn’t give up a three to him. I think the biggest thing, really, was eliminating his assists. Don’t let him have the easy dump-off passes.”
Now the Hogs are free to concentrate on No. 1 Auburn.
“I can tell you what I’m going to be doing tonight as soon as I get home,” Musselman told his radio audience. “I’ll be watching Auburn film and I can’t wait.”