By Jeremy Peppas
Special to Nate Allen Sports Services
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — It was a sloppy night for basketball for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
In the team’s one and only trip to central Arkansas, the Razorbacks struggled in the first half against Valparaiso but pulled away for a 72-68 victory and improved to 10-1 on the season.
Valpo made a game out of it, but the Crusaders (7-6) couldn’t pull off the upset of the Southeastern Conference school.
Arkansas jumped out to an early 13-point lead, keyed by a Adrio Bailey dunk that ignited the not-quite sellout crowd of 15,630, and it looked like the team was going to have an easy night.
But the Razorbacks were plagued by turnovers, notching an even dozen in the first half. That total of 12 matched the number of field goals made by Arkansas, and also the number of points Valpo scored off those same turnovers.
It was not good basketball, and things got worse late in the first half when Arkansas coach Eric Musselman was called for the technical with 1:02 remaining.
Musselman protested to the officials the lack of a call that sent Arkansas guard Mason Jones tumbling into the scorer’s table. Jones certainly looked like he was fouled, but that isn’t the way officials saw it.
Then the whistle came on Musselman.
That sent Valpo’s Javon Freeman-Liberty to the line, and Simmons Arena got rock-concert loud. He missed the first, which somehow only seemed to make it louder, but the second free throw fell and Valpo took the 32-31 lead.
At the half, Valpo was up 34-32.
The second half was back and forth as Arkansas guard Isaiah Joe hit a three-pointer with 10:19 remaining in the game to cut the Valpo lead to 2, 51-49. That was followed by Adrio Bailey hitting one of two free throws at the 9:51 mark to make it a one-point game, but Arkansas couldn’t get anything going, and after consecutive baskets by Valpo, the Razorbacks were down by their biggest margin of the night, 8 points, 59-51 with 7:23 left.
Arkansas made a run late in the second half after Jimmy Whitt Jr. drove to the basket for a layup to make it a three-point game, 59-56. Then on the ensuing possession Reggie Chaney was fouled, and the sophomore forward made it a one-point game, 59-58. But Valpo kept it going and maintained its lead.
With Valpo’s lead again cut to one, 63-62, all 18,000 rose to their feet in the final two minutes, and those fans were rewarded when Jones tied up the game 65-all with 1:21 remaining and just like that, it was a game again.
Whitt turned up the defensive pressure and got the steal on the ensuing possession, and Jones followed for an off-balance three-pointer with :51.6 remaining to give Arkansas the 68-65 lead.
Then the crowd lost their minds when Freeman-Liberty’s dunk attempt was blocked at the rim by Bailey and Valpo fouled Joe as he drove down the court.
The pressure didn’t matter as Joe hit both and Arkansas was up 5, 70-65 with :36 remaining.
That pressure didn’t matter for Valpo either as Eron Gordon hit a three-pointer himself with :26 remaining and it was 70-68.
Arkansas added two more free throws from Jones with :25.4 to make it 72-68 and Valpo struggled to get a shot off in the final seconds. In the ensuing scrum, Jones ended up with the ball on the floor and Arkansas got the timeout with :5.6 left and up 72-68.
Valpo needed a miracle, but the desperation three-pointer rimmed out and Arkansas held on for the 72-68 win.
Joe lead Arkansas with 21 points, while Jones added 20.
Freeman-Liberty, Valpo’s leading scorer coming into the game, put up 21 points for his team.
Arkansas takes a week off for the Christmas holiday and returns to action on Dec. 29 when they travel to Bloomington, Ind., to face Indiana Hoosiers in a game that will tip at 5 p.m. and be broadcast on the Big 10 Network.