FAYETTEVILLE – After each earlier in the week opened their season scoring at will against the hapless Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils, the Arkansas Razorbacks and University of North Texas Mean Green introduced each other to defense Saturday evening at Walton Arena.
Thanks to 7-3 center Connor Vanover, “our goalie,” Arkansas Coach Erick Musselman said of his six shots shot-blocker the Razorbacks cast the by far bigger introduction in Saturday’s nonconference game defeating the Mean Green, 69-54.
Vanover grabbed 16 rebounds, blocked those half dozen shots and altered or discouraged countless others. He discombobulated a Mean Green offense thwarted inside and outside hitting but 2 of 13 threes after tallying 21 treys on Mississippi Valley State.
“He (Vanover) had 14 defensive rebounds, 16 total rebounds and then his six shots along with the shots that he altered that didn’t go down in the stat sheet,” Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said. “It was really, really hard to take Connor off the floor tonight. I thought he was that dominant for us.”
Arkansas’ guards more than chipped in defensively.
For the Mean Green’s best player, 2019-2020 Conference USA Player Javion Hamlet, there was no pondering to be or not to be. For Hamlet it was not to be. He could only launch six shots and score eight points mostly guarded by Jalen Tate.
“We kind of assign a star to someone on the other team to cut the snake’s head off so to speak,” Musselman said. “That’s what Jalen Tate does. I thought he did a phenomenal job. Hamlet’s a guy that you wanted to keep off the foul line. We just kind of wanted him to have to give the ball up in the back court, not in the front court. I thought we did a great job of limiting his touches. He only took four free throws attempted, which is under his average.”
Offensively, guard JD Notae, 16 points off the bench, including 11 when Arkansas broke it open for a 38-27 first half once knotted 19-19, forward Justin Smith, a game-leading 18 points, and guards Desi Sills and Moses Moody, 14 and 11 inflicted the most damage.
Following their 142-62 rout last Wednesday over MVSU, Musselman’s Razorbacks take a 2-0 record into Wednesday night’s game at Walton against Texas-Arlington.
Coach Grant McCasland’ reigning Conference USA champion Mean Green, opening Thanksgiving night at home in Denton, Texas thumping MVSU, 116-62, leave Fayetteville, 1-1 and next play Texas A&M-Commerce Tuesday night in Denton.
Arkansas started hot jumping to a 11-4 lead, then cooled considerably.
The Mean Green thrice tied it 15-15, 17-17 and 19-19 before Arkansas’ game-breaking 10-0 run.
Notae started it rebounding a Sills missed three and finding Moody for a foul-drawing 3-point play.
Notae’s scoring spree, two buckets inside and a trey, completed the 10-0 run for a 29-19 lead.
Arkansas’ first-half lead peaked at 38-25 cut to 38-27 with Zachary Simmons’ basket two seconds before intermission.
Arkansas’ man to man defense not only first-half stifled the Mean Green but forced 11 turnovers as the Razorbacks outscored UNT 14-4 on first half miscues.
Vanover, whose 4 of 5 3-pointers and 23 points led Arkansas against Mississippi Valley State, dominated the first half without ever attempting a three and shooting but one shot which he made. For the game the game he dominated Vanover scored just six points and tried just one trey and missed.
“Connor only had six points and he only took four shots, but he did a great job impacting the win,” Musselman said. “So it’s not always about scoring the basketball. It’s a lot of little things that go into it.”
Notae, redshirting with Vanover at Arkansas last season as each transferred as underclassmen from Division 1 schools, said, “That was the Connor that we’ve been waiting on. I mean, he’s 7-3. He can protect the rim. He can get all the rebounds, and you saw that tonight. I’m just happy for him, because that’s like my brother. We sat out together. So, it’s good to see him have a huge impact on the game like he did tonight.”
Notae’s 11 led Arkansas’ first-half offense while Smith scored eight and Sills tallied seven.
Notae did not play well his first first-half session off the bench then lit it up his second appearance, Musselman said.
Vanover started the second half like he started the first, blocking a shot leading to Moody attempting a three and drawing Hamlet’s third foul.
Moody sank all three freebies then copped a steal and fed Justin Smith for a layup and 43-27 lead. Vanover quickly extended it to 45-27. Jalen Tate’s layup at 16:11 put Arkansas up 20 47-27 with the Mean Green still second half scoreless.
UNT’s James Reese finally broke the Mean Green skid with a layup at 15:05 that started a 7-0 run broken by a Sills trey.
Down 10 (55-45) was as close as the Mean Green could make in the second before a Vanover follow started a game-sealing 7-0 spurt.
“I think we held them for about 4 minutes and 55 seconds or maybe 5 minutes where they did not score,” Musselman said. “And I that that really changed the complexion of the game was our defensive intensity to start the second half.”