Razorback Basketball: Vanover, Hogs Prevail

Arkansas Razorback Forward Connor Vanover (23) shoots during a basketball game between Arkansas and Gardner-Webb on Saturday, 11/13/2021 at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville AR.

Nate Allen

FAYETTEVILLE – At 7-foot-3 Connor Vanover always stands tallest on Arkansas’ roster sheet.

Saturday he stood tallest on Arkansas’ stat sheet, too.

Tallying a team-leading 19 points, game-leading three blocked shots and team second-leading seven rebounds in just 17 minutes, the fourth-year junior letterman center from Little Rock and second-year transfer via the University of California led the Razorbacks to an 86-69 beating of the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs Saturday afternoon at Walton Arena.

Coach Eric Musselman’s nationally No. 16 Razorbacks of the SEC advance to 2-0 into Wednesday night’s game against Northern Iowa here.

Gardner-Webb of the Southern Conference, losing only by six last week at UNLV, falls to 0-2.

Arkansas’ victory did not initially come easily.

The Hogs trailed 21-15 at 6:46 of the first half before Vanover’s hook shot at 6:24 ignited a 14-0 run that included two more Vanover buckets and a shot-block.

Arkansas breezed 42-26 at intermission.

Not budged off the bench for Arkansas’ season-opening  74-61 victory last Tuesday over Mercer University, Vanover started Saturday and hit two of Arkansas first three baskets and scored 12 in the first half.

In the second half, Vanover scored seven of Arkansas’ first nine points and assisted Devo Davis for the other two.

To healthy applause, Vanover exited for the game’s duration at 11:53.

Musselman almost appreciated how Vanover didn’t play last week as much as appreciating how he did play Saturday.

“I thought Connor was awesome,” Musselman said postgame. “I didn’t play him in Game One trying to look at some of the new guys. He practiced hard every day. He had great body language the night he didn’t play. “I told the staff after the last game, ‘Hey, we’re starting Connor. He’s all about the team.’”

The team isn’t apt to be without him either starting or prominent off the bench.

“He’s in the rotation now,” Musselman said.

Vanover paid his Arkansas dues redshirting as a UC-Berkeley transfer two years ago during Musselman first year coaching the Razorbacks and rode the bench closing last season after being an early-season starter. His playing time diminished but not his attitude.

“I always have my trust in Coach Muss,” Vanover said. “So when he didn’t play me at the end of last year and the beginning of this year I believed in him and just kept practicing and trying to get better and kept grinding.”

Teammates noticed.

“The guys really like playing with Connor,” Musselman said. “We’ve got two bigs (Vanover and 6-10 sophomore power forward-center Jaylin Williams) that our team and last year’s team likes playing with because they’re ball movers and they understand spacing and they don’t take bad shots and they defend. Connor blocks shots and Jaylin takes charges.”

Williams took three charges Saturday while grabbing a team-leading eight rebounds and matching the five assists he dished against Mercer.

“There  is probably not  a 4 or 5-man in all of  college basketball that has10 assists through two games,” Musselman said.   “He’s been absolutely incredible.”

As a team through two exhibition games and the Mercer game, the Hogs had been criticized by their coach for committing more turnovers than assists.

Saturday they excelled with 23 assists, led by sophomore guard Devo Davis’ six, against nine turnovers. 

“We addressed issues of moving the ball,” Musselman said.  “We addressed issues of finding open teammates.  We had 137 passes at halftime which was not that far off of where we were for an entire game.” 

Davis  of Jacksonville also hit a couple of threes and scored 10 points while guard JD Notae, scoring 30 against Mercer, scored big again with 18. He easily could have scored more but like Vanover, was pulled in the second half.

The reserves that Musselman finished with did not finish so favorably reviewed.

A 31-point lead dissipated to 17.  Paced by Julian Soumaoro’s 20 points off the bench including 5 of 7 3-pointers, the Bulldogs hit 13 of 31 treys including 4 of 9 by guard Lance Terry.

“I think it was quite obvious when you watched the first 30 minutes and you watched the last 10 minutes where our rotation is going to end up,” Musselman said.  “Really disappointed how we played the last about eight minutes of the game.  The one area which we have not bought in, which is all on me, is defending the three.”

Terry and 6-9 lone Gardner-Webb big man Kareem Reid each scored 16 points.

With Arkansas starting Williams and Vanover, it left Reid one big man short in support.

“For them to put (6-4) Zion Williams on me to start the game I think opened everybody’s eyes,” Vanover said.

It did, Devo Davis said.

“Playing two bigs helped a lot,” Davis said. “They had a small lineup and they couldn’t run with us. Connor ran the floor well and J-Will did, too.”

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