By Otis Kirk
Senior Kamani Johnson was the unlikely hero for No. 9 Arkansas on Wednesday night as they defeated No. 17 San Diego State 78-74 to take third place in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.
Johnson, one of two returning players to the Razorbacks from last season, didn’t play in the tournament until the second half of Wednesday night’s game. He played 19 minutes after intermission. Arkansas trailed 67-65 when Anthony Black missed a shot with three seconds remaining in regulation. Johnson got the offensive rebound and put the tip in at the buzzer to force overtime.
“Coach told me I’m one of the best offensive rebounders in the nation,” Johnson said. “So I told the guys, whatever you do make sure there is a little bit of time left on the clock before you shoot just so I could get an offensive rebound. They attacked me and I may have put a body out on me but I might have cleared some take out, too.”
If that wasn’t enough of heroics from Johnson, he stepped to the free throw line with three seconds remaining in overtime and the Hogs clinging to a 76-74 lead. He calmly sank both free throws to give the Hogs a two-possession lead with three seconds remaining. Johnson revealed after the game what he was thinking as he stepped to the charity stripe.
“I was ready to get back to the Hill,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to go.”
Just to put the exclamation mark on the game, Johnson then stole the inbound pass as time expired and the Razorbacks celebrated. In his 19 minutes, Johnson scored seven points, pulled down seven boards and had two steals. He talked about what it was like to get into the game when he did after having not played to that point in this tournament.
“I feel amazing,” Johnson said. “I feel like our team was a little bit down from yesterday. We feel like we should have won the game. We got down by 10 and they put me in and I was ready for the moment. I feel like I’m one of the leaders on this team and I feel like I had to show them how to fight. You know it was just a team effort out there. I loved how we fought and that’s just going to help us in March. That was one of those gut wins.”
The Razorbacks trailed much of the game and at one time they were down 13 points, 29-16, with 5:56 remaining in the first half. The Aztecs took advantage of Black being on the bench with two fouls and went on a 11-0 run to take the big lead. Black had pulled Arkansas to within 18-16 before drawing his second foul. Black reentered the game with 6:33 left before halftime and broke Arkansas’ dry spell with a pair of free throws at the 5:44 mark.
The game featured 10 lead changes. The Aztecs held the lead for 33 minutes, 47 seconds compared to only 8:52 for Arkansas. When Council hit a basket to open the overtime it was Arkansas’ first lead since the 11:22 mark of the first half.
Trevon Brazile came off the bench to lead the Razorbacks in scoring and rebounds. He finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and two steals. Council IV added 19 points, three rebounds, four assists and two steals. Black added 15 points, five rebounds, an assist and one steal. Jordan Walsh had seven points, five rebounds, two assists and one block. Eric Musselman was obviously proud of the way his team fought until the end and found a way to win. He was especially proud of Johnson’s performance.
“With our 11 new guys and six freshmen this was a really tough field to play in,” Musselman said. “The final 20 minutes that Kamani played was really awesome. He plays really hard. He always does that.
“I think the thing when we go back and watch the tape, he did a really good job in help defense. I thought our help defense kind of changed when he came in the game. That’s not an easy thing to do is to sit for a couple of games and wait and then come in. He made two free throws. He gets the tip-in. Just an incredible, incredible effort.”
Matt Bradley led all scorers in the game with 23 points. He also had seven rebounds and three steals. Darri Trammell added 13 points, a pair of rebounds, two assists and a couple of steals. Keshad Johnson had 10 points and seven boards before fouling out.
After feeling the foul situation was a one-sided affair and not in their favor on Tuesday night in the loss to Creighton. Wednesday was a different story. Arkansas shot 38 free throws making 27. On the other hand, the Aztecs made 18 of 23 at the charity stripe.
Having played three games in as many days both teams were off from behind the 3-point line. Neither team made a 3-pointer in the first half. Arkansas ended up 3 of 17 (18 percent) for the game while San Diego State was 2 of 18 (11 percent).
The Razorbacks won the battle of the boards 40-34. The Hogs committed 16 turnovers while the Aztecs had 15 of their own. Both teams scored 16 points off turnovers.
In the championship game, Arizona defeated Creighton 81-79. Ohio State took fifth place downing Texas Tech 80-73. In the seventh-place game, Cincinnati dropped Louisville 81-62 sending Arkansas’ first-round opponent home winless.
Arkansas (5-1) will return home on Monday to host Troy at 7 p.m. in Bud Walton Arena. Troy is 6-1 on the season including a 79-72 victory over Florida State on Nov. 14. The game will be televised on the SEC Network.