FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Finally. It had been a month since anyone had seen the Arkansas basketball team. The real Arkansas basketball team.
It returned at last Saturday afternoon inside Bud Walton Arena. The team that titillated and enraptured the state back in nonconference play had been on the side of a milk carton since. Six games of mostly subpar basketball in SEC play was finally overcome.
Arkansas’ 97-93 win over Ole Miss could have not have come at a better time. While it’s hard to proclaim the seventh game in an 18-game league-play season as must-win, Saturday was as significant a seventh conference game as a seventh conference game can be. Had the Razorbacks lost they’d have sat three games below .500. Not an impossible mark to rally from, but in league where the middle is a difficult mire from which to escape, the more Arkansas avoids it, the better their NCAA Tournament hopes.
While it was far from perfect, Saturday showed that when the Razorbacks (13-6, 3-4) play like they are able, they are a team worthy of the Big Dance.
Four players scored in double figures, led by 23 from Jaylen Barford. They shot 55 percent as a team and canned 11 3-pointers. Their defense forced 13 Ole Miss turnovers and scored 21 points off them. It was not only well-played, it was well-played in most aspects.
In Arkansas’ six previous games, even the two wins, the Razorbacks only controlled the game for maybe about 20 game minutes. The waning minutes of regulation against Tennessee and first few minutes of the first half against Missouri were the only obvious times. And while Arkansas did see its 16-point lead Saturday drop to four, a majority of the game belonged to the Razorbacks.
Moments came when Ole Miss staged mini exercises in command. One of the last, and most concerning, came with about six minutes to play. The Rebels pulled within four points after a 3-pointer from Breein Tyree.
With the crowd nervous, Barford stripped Marcanvis Hymon near midcourt, headed to his end and converted a layup to settle some tension. A pair of late 3s from Ole Miss pulled the Rebels within just two points with 8.8 seconds left. Daryl Macon hit a pair of free throws to give Arkansas a two-possession lead, though, and keep the Hogs out of the SEC basement.
Macon, Daniel Gafford, Darious Hall and CJ Jones joined Barford in double figures with 20, 15, 11 and 11 respectively. Terence Davis scored a game-high 30 for Ole Miss.
Not fancy, but awfully important. The worst-shooting free throw team in the SEC was far from it. Arkansas made 28 of 35 from the line. That’s 80 percent. Arkansas had been shooting 57 percent on its free throws in SEC play, last in the league.
No dagger against the Rebels. More, the finish felt like Arkansas hanging on. When De’Andre Burnett made his wing 3 with 26.2 seconds left and cut the Hogs’ lead to three, the groan inside Bud Walton Arena was audible. It was worse when Davis hit his with 8.8 seconds left to cut it to a two-point game.
What’s next for Arkansas?
The Razorbacks head back on the road Tuesday night. They are off to Athens for a midweek game against Georgia.