By Jeremy Peppas
Special to Nate Allen Sports Services
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas coach Eric Musselman thought Saturday night’s game against Valparaiso might be a tough one.
He was right. The Razorbacks had to rally to beat the Crusaders in dramatic fashion in a game that wasn’t decided until the final few seconds.
“The last game before a break,” Musselman said in the post-game press conference, “it is not going to be easy on teams.”
Indeed, Christmas is almost here, and the Arkansas Razorbacks will scatter to be with the family they were born into or the family they’ve made as teammates, and others.
“We think of all of Razorback Nation as our family,” said forward Adrio Bailey after the game. “They are, and we do.”
Musselman explained that the team, now 10-1, would be back to practice on Christmas afternoon, with the team traveling to Bloomington, Ind., on Saturday to face the Indiana Hoosiers on Sunday, Dec. 29.
That game will tip at 5 p.m. and will be broadcast on the Big 10 Network.
After that, the Southeastern Conference portion of the schedule will start with a home game against Texas A&M in the first game of the new year on Jan. 4.
As for the game against Valpo, it was a Christmas present to the team, Musselman and, most of all, the fans, who came out in huge numbers for Arkansas’s only appearance in central Arkansas this season.
“The crowd was awesome,” Musselman said. “It was so loud. If we had been playing in an empty arena, we wouldn’t have won that game.”
Indeed, Simmons Bank Arena, formerly Verizon Arena and before that Alltel Arena, was packed to the rafters. The pre-game notes indicated the capacity of the two-decades old facility was 18,000, but that’s for concerts.
An official with the North Little Rock Fire Department said capacity for basketball was more in the 16,500 range. While the announced crowd was 15,630, that wasn’t quite right, either. The fire marshal indicated a crowd of around 16,200 when all attendees were counted.
Even more importantly, it was rock-concert loud, and the noise clearly rattled Valpo at the end. The Arkansas players fed off the energy, especially in the two most important stretches, the game’s first eight minutes and final five minutes.
In between, Arkansas played sloppy, racking up 12 turnovers in the first half and trailing at halftime, 34-32.
Key in the first-half run was Bailey, who ignited the crowd with an electric dunk. “I was trying to break the goal,” he said with a laugh, and it looked like Arkansas was going to have an easy night. That wasn’t the case, as the Hogs were plagued by bad basketball in key stretches and Valpo made a game of it.
Key to that effort was the play of Javon Freeman-Liberty, who came into the game as the Crusaders’ leading scorer with 21.8 points a game, and Musselman knew what to expect. “They have a special scorer in Freeman-Liberty,” he said.
Freeman-Liberty held up his end of the bargain and finished with 21 points, but it wasn’t enough as Valpo fell to 7-6 on the season.
For long stretches in the second half, it seemed like Valpo had the game in hand. The Crusaders were up 8 points with 7:23 left.
With Desi Sills out of the game because of a knee bruise, Musselman had to make some adjustments, and some players were asked to do some things they weren’t especially used to, namely Mason Jones, who slid into more of what the coach described as a “point-forward role.”
And Jones was also tasked with taking more shots from beyond the arc, a role he played with aplomb.
Jones tied up the game 65-all with 1:21 remaining and followed with an off-balance three-pointer with :51.6 to give Arkansas a 68-65 lead. They were the only three-pointers Jones made in the game
“I just wanted to knock them down,” Jones said post-game. “Have my teammates trust me.” He was interrupted by Bailey, who said, “we trust you, bro.”
While the threes were big, and gave Arkansas the eventual win, it was Bailey who sealed the deal when he blocked Freeman-Liberty’s dunk attempt at the rim, and the already-vocal crowd lost their minds.
Isaiah Joe was fouled after he picked up the rebound, and and his two free throws gave Arkansas the 70-65 lead with just seconds remaining.
Jones put the icing on the cake with two more free throws to set the final margin.
Joe lead Arkansas with 21 points, while Jones added 20.
“Good teams don’t lose games like this,” Musselman said, adding, “everyone here stayed until the end, and it was entertaining.”
Photos courtesy of Jaison Sterling