FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas drew a sellout crowd at its 19,200 seat Walton Arena and needed it Saturday full throated to subdue the stubborn Texas A&M Aggies, 69-59 in the SEC opener for both teams.
First-year coach Eric Musselman’ Razorbacks are a gaudy 12-2 overall going into their Wednesday night SEC game at LSU while first-year coach Buzz Williams’ Aggies only 6-6 overall going into their second SEC game Tuesday night hosting Ole Miss.
You wouldn’t have noted the records disparity by much of Saturday’s play.
Arkansas only led 59-54 with 6:40 left. The Hogs relied entirely on five guards after senior forward Adrio Bailey picked up his fourth foul with 15:57 left and substitute guard Jalen Harris soon replacing 6-8 substitute Reggie Chaney.
Arkansas didn’t entirely seal the deal until an Isaiah Joe three put Arkansas up, 69-59 with 1:38 left.
The crowd, including some 40 Razorbacks lettermen from the Glen Rose through Mike Anderson eras, roared as A&M committed three of its 17 turnovers in succession down the stretch as Arkansas pulled away.
“The crowd’s energy was insanely awesome,” Musselman said. “I had a buddy in from the Bay Area and he said he’s never heard an arena that loud in his life. It was awesome to have the former Razorback players with us today. I’m happy we won our first league game.”
Star guards playing forwards Joe of Fort Smith Northside, and Mason Jones led Arkansas scoring 17 each with guards Desi Sills and Jimmy Whitt scoring 13 and 12 while Harris scored six and dished five assists.
Andre Gordon scored 15 for A&M while Wendell Mitchell scored 13 and 6-9 center Josh Nebo scored 10 with a game-high 13 rebounds.
Graduate transfer Whitt, originally a Razorbacks freshman under former Arkansas coach Mike Anderson then lettering three years at SMU and the lone Razorback player made media available, has played too many conference games to expect an easy opener.
“We knew they were going to come out and play hard and play well,” Whitt said. “Give credit to them it was a game you had to grind it out. They are a` really good defensive team and really good at controlling the pace of the game.”
Musselman and Williams both gave the Aggies their due but Williams said the Hogs five guards literally took the game away on turnovers.
“I thought we handled an incredible basketball environment in many respects about as well as we could,” Williams said. “It’s just so hard for us to overcome the turnover rate that we have. I don’t know the exact number but it was very high in the last ATO (Assists-turnover) of the first half and very high in the last ATO of the second half.
For the game Arkansas committed nine turnovers to A&M’s 17 and outscored the Aggies, 17-7 off mistakes.
‘They shot ball 34 times in the second half and we shot it 19. That’s because of turnovers,” Williams said.
Arkansas’ deceptively comfortable appearing 42-33 halftime lead required Jones’ 4-point play with 1:10 left and Sills’ 3-pointer two seconds before intermission to be achieved.
Arkansas was just up 35-32 when Jones hit the three that became four because Mitchell fouled him.
A&M’s Quenton Jackson had hit 1 of 2 free throws with 45 seconds left after Whitt’s second foul.
Jeantal Cylla, becoming the rare eighth Razorback that Musselman has used lately, subbed for Whitt. After both Sills and Joe missed threes, Cylla came through with the rebound and delivery to Jalen Harris who fed Sills for the three securing the 42-33 halftime lead.
Neither team in an early back and forth of short leads and ties led by more than three until Sills was fouled late in the shot clock trying a desperate three. He sank all three free throws for a 24-20 lead.
A&M battled back and would exchange leads again until a Jones trey snapped a 30-30 tie at 2:32.
Two Mitchell free throws for down 33-32 was the closest the Aggies could come before the Jones and Sills half-closing 3-pointers.
Mitchell, averaging just 7.1 points, scored 11 off the first-half bench.
In the second half Arkansas took a brief 10-point lead that the Aggies cut to two on Gordon’s basket with the Aggies countering every attempt for Arkansas to pull irrevocably away until 1:38.
Knowing Musselman heavily relies on just seven players, A&M coach Williams employed 10 Aggies in the first half but Arkansas’ five guards ranging from Harris’ 31 minutes to Joe’s 38:59.
“When we went with the five guards, it was a little risky,” Musselman said. “Naturally as a coach you think about when you have five guards out there, defensively and rebounding is what you’re concerned with. But the five guards were our best lineup defensively and they were our best rebounding lineup.”
Other than Nebo, no Aggie outrebounded Jones’ six boards while Joe grabbed five and Whitt, Sills and Harris each grabbed four.
“ I felt like today,” Whitt said, “we were able to go out there and compete hard on defense and get rebounds when we needed to, make defensive stops when we needed to.
On offense (outscoring A&M 30-12 on threes) , it’s hard to guard five guards because if they play a big there’s a mismatch. We have guys who can shoot, get to the rim, drive. So we cause a matchup problem when we go five guards.”
Photos Courtesy of Crant Osborne