By Nate Allen
FAYETTEVILLE – From JD Notae’s game-opening 3-pointer on the Arkansas Razorbacks led and leveled the West Virginia Mountaineers for a 77-68 SEC vs. Big 12 Challenge victory Saturday afternoon before a sold-out Walton Arena.
Arkansas’ sixth straight success ups Coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks to 16-5 going back into SEC play Wednesday night against the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens, Ga.
Coach Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers fall to 13-7 and resume Big 12 play Monday night at reigning national champion in Waco, Texas.
Arkansas often made it look easy leading as much as 19 points but had to withstand SEC leading scorer Notae benched the final 16:34 of the first half because of foul trouble and a 12-0 Mountaineers run during the second half.
WVU narrowed the 19-point bulge to down just 68-62 at 4:25 before a Devo Davis free throw and a Notae layup put the Hogs up nine and never again to lead by less than seven.
Au’Diese Toney’s game-leading 19 points and superb defense on normally leading scoring WVU guard Taz Sherman, 15 points but only 4 of 11 to score them, led the Hogs with plenty of co-stars.
Sophomore center Jaylin Williams double-doubled with 12 points and 15 rebounds leading Arkansas’m 44-26 rebounding dominance. Stanley Umude, scoreless in Arkansas’ last game Wednesday at Ole Miss, tallied 12 points and eight boards in just 24 minutes while Notae in 23:26 scored 15 points.
Sean McNeil, normally WVU’s No. 2 scorer to Sherman, only hit 3 of 11 shots scoring seven.
Guard Kedrian Johnson surprisingly was the top Mountaineer scoring 18 points including 4 of 5 treys.
The Hogs easily absorbed Johnson’s big day holding the Mountaineers as a team to a 23 for 60 shooting day at 38 percent.
“Defensively that’s six straight games holding our opponent under 40 percent,” Musselman said on postgame radio noting the under 40 percent field goal defense matches Arkansas’ six-game winning streak. “That’s elite defense to rattle those off six in a row. Obviously to win six in a row is not easy. But the defensive field goal percentage has been incredible.”
So was the 44-26 rebounding advantage and continued frequency getting to the free throw line and making them (28 of 34 to WVU’s 15 of 21).
“Coming into tonight’s game we talked a lot about West Virginia’s rebounding,” Musselman said. “We dominated the backboards tonight. So I think from a physical standpoint we did an incredible job on the glass as well as being pretty physical defensively.”
Williams and Umude most erased the boards.
“Phenomenal,” Musselman said of Williams. “Fourteen defensive rebounds against a really physical program that’s known for its rebounding, He was phenomenal on the glass tonight.”
“I thought Stan was awesome,” Musselman said, regretting he didn’t play forward Umude much the final 10 minutes relying on an extra guard’s ball handling protecting the lead. “Maybe down the stretch I should have played Stan a little more because he deserved it. He played so well in the first half.”
Nobody stood taller with their coach than Toney, the forward who has been playing off guard since this winning streak’s advent.
“The guy that’s the unsung hero is Au’Diese Toney,” Musselman said You look at his offensive numbers which are really, really good. Guy goes 6 of 8, 19 points and we never call a play for him. But you’ve got to think about who he was guarding from a defensive standpoint. Defensively (vs. Sherman) he was incredible. One of Sherman’s (two) threes was a loose ball scramble off an offensive rebound and then he got a basket at the end of the game.”
The game plan hinged on neutralizing Sherman and McNeil, variously guarded by Notae, Devo Davis, and Trey Wade.
“Those two guys get their team going,” Toney said. “Once we eliminated them from the equation everything else just fell in our hands. When we lock in as a team on defense it’s amazing what we can do. And we’ve shown that the last couple of games.”
Musselman stressed how he stressed shadowing Sherman and McNeil.
“Those were the two guys we primarily spent the last few days talking about how to defend,” Musselman said. “One goes 4 for 11 and the other 3 for 11. So a phenomenal job.”
They also showed they could survive most of a half minus Notae. The Hogs led 10-4 with Notae scoring five when his second foul benched him the final 16:34 of the first half that Arkansas led, 38-29 at intermission.
Notae, Toney, Umude, and Williams all excelled early in the second half when the Hogs led by 19 then had to regroup as the Mountaineers started climbing back in the Ozarks.
“We talked about even at halftime that they were going to go on a run,”Musselman said. “There was a run in them because they play hard and they’re well coached and they have a couple really, really talented offensive players.
Just weather the storm.”
The crowd, Toney said, wouldn’t allow anything but a favorable Arkansas climate.
“Just amazing how the fans create this atmosphere,” Toney said.
Toney amazed them with some spectacular dunks and putbacks.
“I thought our athleticism was showing tonight,” Musselman said.