FAYETTEVILLE – Minus injured leading scorer Mason Jones and beset by Northern Kentucky Norse star Dantez Walton scoring 30 points, Arkansas dodged Adham Eleeda’s wide open from the corner missed trey with 14 seconds left that would have been a 63-62 NKU lead and prevailed, 66-60 Saturday afternoon at Walton Arena.
Senior Razorbacks forward Adrio Bailey was fouled rebounding Eleeda’s miss. He hit two clutch free throws putting the game at 64-60 out of reach. Jimmy Whitt, Arkansas’ leading scorer matching his career high 24 points, added two free throws with two seconds left completing the 66-60 triumph upping new coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks to 7-0 going Tuesday night’s game against Austin Peay University at Walton.
Coached by former SEC coach Darrin Horn of South Carolina past, the Norse of the Horizon League fall to 5-3 battling the Razorbacks to the wire.
“I am never okay with a loss, obviously, but really proud of our guys and how we competed,” Horn said, “We just didn’t make enough basketball plays to win the game. We got Adham Eleeda wide open at the end of the game and you couldn’t get a better look than that. It just didn’t go in.”
Bailey was supposed to be on Eleeda, Musselman said but went to help on NKU guard Tyler Sharpe for whom Horn designed the play to shoot the three until spotting Eleeda and passing to him wide open.
“Adrio overhelped and gave up and open look,”Musselman said. But he ultimately proved to be in the wrong spot at the right time to rebound and get fouled.
“We should have stayed steady and stayed on our man,” sophomore guard Desi Sills said without naming Bailey. “But it paid off perfectly when we got the rebound and we still came out with the win.”
“He (Eleeda) was certainly not anybody we wanted to leave open,” Musselman said. “Again, having said that, we came out with a win.”
A big win with senior point guard Whitt and Desi Sills, season high 17 points assuming the scoring slack with Jones and his 18.5 scoring average sidelined “indefinitely,Musselman said with an injured shoulder.
Compounding Jones’ absence, Arkansas 3-point shooting star Isaiah Joe (16.7 pregame average) was off his game. Joe hit just 2 for 9 on threes while scoring 10,
Using just seven players instead of his usual eight with Jones out, Musselman’s two-men bench produced 11 rebounds, five assists and six points from sophomore center Reggie Chaney in 24 minutes and guard Jalen Harris’ five points, five assists, and four rebounds in 35 minutes.
“ I thought Jalen Harris and Reggie’s minutes were phenomenal,” Musselman said. “I thought Desi and Jimmy did a great job of scoring against their zone.”
The Hogs needed all they could muster with 6-7 Walton scoring 30 including 4 of 6 threes, though he did miss the front half off two one-and-ones in the second half, grabbing 10 rebounds, blocking four shots and making four steals.
“ I thought we had the best player on the floor,” Horn said, “Quite honestly, I didn’t think it was close in Dantez Walton. We didn’t feel they had anybody who could guard him. I thought he was outstanding and really impacted the game in a number of ways, not just scoring the basketball.’
Musselman, Whitt and Sills postgame all gave Walton his due with NKU guards Trevon Faulkner and Sharpe adding 14 and 10 points.
NKU hit 8 of 24 threes to Arkansas’ 3 of 18 three prompting Musselman for the first time expressing dismay with Arkansas’ 3-point defense and noting that “night after night” Arkansas’ 3-point shooting has been a concern.
Still Whitt, and Sills merited admiration from both coaches.
““I just think he (Whitt) is a really versatile dude,” Horn said. “He is crafty, not overly explosive in terms of blowing by you, but by changing directions and getting guys on your hip band getting to two feet around the basket and either drawing fouls or getting the ball on the time.”
On 6-1 guard Sills’ ability to play offensively and defensively inside, Horn said, “I think he is a kid that is really aggressive and plays with the kind of personality and approach that I am sure that Eric wants in his team and his players.”
Sills scored the game’s first basket at 19:23.
That 2-0 lead would be Arkansas’ only first-half lead until Whitt either assisted or scored Arkansas 8-0 flurry closing the half from down 28-25 to up 33-28.
Whitt hit two free throws at 2:50, from underneath the basket fed Sills storming down the middle to score at 2:22 and then resumed the scoring himself inside at 1:37 and with 40 seconds left.
After Sills’ opening bucket, the Norse mounted an 8-0 run causing at 17:29 the first Musselman called timeout in his seven games coaching the Razorbacks.
Walton’s three peaked NKU’s lead at 13-4 at 14:59.
Doing everything save hitting first hitting first-half threes, 0 for 2, or free throws, 0 for 2 failing to complete what would have been 3-point plays, Sills surged the Hogs back in it with the crowd’s help. Four of Sills’ 12 first-half points after a Whitt tip-in brought Arkansas to 15-15 tie after trailing by nine.
Arkansas never trailed in the second half but never could breathe easily especially watching Eleeda’s shot from the corner.
“It worked out in our favor,” Whitt said. “But you don’t want games to come down to basically hoping and praying they miss a shot.”
Photos Courtesy of Craven Whitlow
CW3, Sport Action
. Razorback sophomore guard Desi Sills (#3) from Jonesboro, AR slam dunks for two against Northern Kentucky Saturday afternoon at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, AR.