FAYETTEVILLE – Minus their best rebounder injured for the game’s final 28 minutes and playing their first road game of their so far 9-game season in their SEC opener, the Arkansas Razorbacks with a collective effort dominated and defeated the Auburn Tigers, 97-85 Wednesday night at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala.
Coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks take 9-0 overall and 1-0 SEC records into Saturday’s 11 a.m. CBS televised SEC game at Walton Arena hosting the nationally No. 12 Missouri Tigers, 6-1, 0-1, losing 73-53 to No. 7 Tennessee awaiting Arkansas next Wednesday in Knoxville, Tenn.
Coach Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers fall to 6-3, 0-1 and next visit SEC rival Texas A&M Saturday night in College Station, Texas.
Arkansas led for 38:33 of Wednesday’s 40-minutes but didn’t pull away until smashing a 74-74 tie achieved by two Auburn free throws with 7:30 left in the game with a 10-0 run. The run started with a Connor Vanover dunk at 7:01 and was capped by a 2-point jumper by freshman reserve guard Devontae “Devo” Davis of Jacksonville for 84-74 with 3:23 left.
Auburn never got closer than down five at 2:22 and floundered thereafter.
On a night when five Razorbacks scored from 12 to 23 points, Desi Sills, 23, sixth man guard JD Notae, 21, center Vanover, 17, freshman guard Moses Moody, 16, and point guard Jalen Tate, 12, Musselman mentioned down the line reserves Davis and forward Ethan Henderson right with his stars.
He needed them all. Mainstay forward Justin Smith, four rebounds and four points in his 12 minutes, was sidelined for the game’s duration upon spraining his ankle during the first half, and point guard Tate in second-half foul trouble with Sills briefly shaken up taking an elbow to the face but returning to play 35 minutes.
“When Justin Smith went down in the first half, he’s kind of our unsung leader and had done a great job in the first half,” Musselman said, “I was really proud of the other guys Devo Davis and the job he did defensively was phenomenal. And he hit a really big shot for us. Ethan Henderson has not played much at all. He came in and got a big loose ball for us.”
And Wednesday’s stars?
“Obviously Desi in the first half (16 first-half points and six rebounds for the game as a 6-1 guard) was really, really good,” Musselman said. “JD in the second half was really good. I thought Jalen Tate, especially early in the game did a good job of dribble penetrating, finding the gap and kicking it.”
“Awesome” was the Musselman adjective applied both to guard Moody, six rebounds with his 16 points, and 7-3 center Vanover, five rebounds and a shot-block with his 17 points including a trey for a game-opening 3-0 lead.
All had to do their part on a night when Auburn drained 15 of 29 3-point shots led by sixth-man guard Jamal Johnson, 21 points including 5 of 7 treys, Little Rock Parkview alum Allen Flanigan, 19 points including 3 of 7 treys and grabbing a game-leading 10 rebounds, Devin Cambridge, 15 points all on 5 of 6 treys, and forward Jaylin Williams, 13 points including 2 of 2 treys.
“Obviously it was the worst 3-point defense since I’ve been at Arkansas,” the second-year Arkansas coach said laughing.
Musselman could laugh not only because the Hogs prevailed but the defensive number did they did on freshman guard Justin Powell, Auburn’s leading scorer going into the game but hitting only 1 of 8 shots, 0 for 3 on treys, and scoring but four points.
Powell did dish nine assists but also committed six turnovers.
Arkansas committed 10 turnovers to Auburn’s 19 and outscored the Tigers, 27-11 on miscues.
“Coming into the game everyone talked out Auburn’s steals and their ability to create turnovers and their full court press,” Musselman said. “Before the game we told the team if we could win the turnover game and win the steal game … obviously we were pretty aggressive defensively on the ball. That’s probably why we gave up too many 3-balls.”
The tradeoff proved well worth it.
What did they specifically do to plunder Powell’s impact?
“I just think the pressure and then having multiple bodies,.” Musselman said. “Tate’s done such a great job for us defensively when we’ve assigned him to a star player on another team. Desi guarded him a lot. Actually the first couple of days of the prep, Desi was on Flanigan and J Tate was on Powell. I made the switch yesterday that I wanted Desi because of lower leverage and being able to get under the ball a little bit more. Then we put Tate (6-6)on him at times too because of the length. Also when Devo guarded him and did a really good job.”
With the SEC’s two highest nationally ranked teams, No. 12 Missouri Saturday and at No. 7 Tennessee looming next Wednesday as the next two games, and Smith’s status uncertain, Musselman said winning at Auburn was a must.
“Knowing that we had two ranked teams in the top 15 in our next two games, I thought this was by far the most important game that I have been a part of with this team,” Musselman said.
What about Smith’s availability Saturday against Mizzou?
“I don’t really know,” Musselman said. “Obviously he was in a boot. He has an ankle on one foot and a cap on the other.I don’t know what the docs will say once we get home, but it’s next man up.”