FAYETTEVILLE – With a lot of help from four friends, Isaiah Joe rescued the Razorbacks from their 5-game losing streak.
Arkansas floundered 0-5 since Joe’s season was interrupted by Feb. 4 arthroscopic knee surgery. He returned Saturday with a game-leading 21 points leading the Razorbacks’ 78-68 SEC victory over the Missouri Tigers before an announced 19,200 sellout at Walton Arena.
Sophomore shooting guard and former Fort Smith Northside star Joe hit 5 of Arkansas’ 12 threes avenging avenging an 83-79 overtime loss to the Tigers on Feb. 8 in Columbia, Mo., the second of Joe’s 5-games convalescence.
Joe resumed practice Monday but wasn’t declared fit to play until Saturday morning upon his knee not swelling after Thursday and Friday practices.
“We really didn’t make a decision until this morning,” Joe confirmed. “We got ready and I felt like I was able to go out there and produce and that’s what we did.”
Joe went from zero minutes in five games to 38 minutes in one.
“I think they were going to monitor my minutes but once I got in the flow of the game I felt great out there,” Joe said. “It just felt good to be back out there with my brothers. To be back out there and contribute it’s a great feeling.”
Certainly Joe proved ready hitting 5 of 10 treys, grabbing three rebounds, dishing three assists vs. two turnovers and making a steal with Hogs only doing without him for two minutes.
“I would have liked to have played him two more minutes than what I played him,” Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said smiling. “I thought he was great. We’re a whole different team with him. We just can’t afford a guy like Isaiah not to be in our lineup. I thought he was awesome. He opens up 3-balls for other people as well just being out there.”
Arkansas sophomore guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro, 4 of 6 of six threes, lauded Joe’s game in all phases.
“We lost five straight and we got a key piece back to our team,” Sills said. “Isaiah Joe came back in and showed why he is one of the top guards in the SEC.”
Mizzou Coach Cuonzo Martin and Mizzou star guard Xavier Pinson certainly noticed a different Arkansas with Joe in Fayetteville than without him in Columbia.
“We found he was playing kind of late, but we still knew who he is,” Pinson said. “He showed us who he was — and who he still is. He’s a great player.”
Martin interrupted his first media postgame question knowing it had to be about Isaiah Joe.
“You don’t even have to finish your sentence,” Martin said. “He’s a talented player. He’s gifted. Any time you’ve been out that long and can shoot the ball like that, it just shows the level of confidence. That’s a legit stroke, probably the best in America.”
Joe didn’t solo rescue the Hogs.
They couldn’t have done it without sophomore guard Sills scoring 14 of his 17 points in the second half, graduate transfer guard and Columbia, Mo. native Jimmy Whitt, 14 points, junior guard Mason Jones, 12 points, eight rebounds and four assists, and senior forward Adrio Bailey 11 points, five rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot.
All drew Musselman’s praise stopping the Arkansas skid. The Razorbacks take 17-10 overall and 5-9 SEC records into Wednesday night’s SEC game at Walton against Tennessee.
Mizzou falls to 13-14, 5-9 and next visits Vanderbilt Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn.
Scoring 24 on Arkansas in Columbia, Pinson scored 15 Saturday as did Mizzou guard Dru Smith. But Pinson, 1 of 8, and Smith were an abysmal combined 1 for 10 on treys.
Arkansas made 12 of 25 treys while defensing the Tigers to only 4 of 21 treys.
“Just stay in front of him (Pinson) and try to stop him because he had a big game when we were in Missouri,” Sills said. “We just tried to get him contained and get him to take bad shots and I feel like we did that tonight. That is one of the big keys why we won.”
Mizzou forward Kobe Brown, double-doubling with 17 points and 10 rebounds, led Mizzou over what has been as typical Arkansas struggling start. The Tigers led 24-13 when Joe, attempting his first shot, was fouled with 9:15 left in the first half. Joe sank both. It started a 10-0 run including his first three drawing an ovation.
“All I needed was to see one bucket go in, a free throw, a layup, a three … doesn’t matter,” Joe said. “I just needed to see it go in the hole.”
Arkansas took its first, lead, 33-31, on a Joe trey at 1:22. The Hogs closed intermission up 35-33 with two Joe free throws breaking a 33-33 tie.
Arkansas never trailed again, taking its first 10-point lead (52-42) on an acrobatic Sills foul-drawing layup and one at 12:59.
Outrebounding Arkansas, 36-23 but only outscoring Arkansas, 5-2 on second chance points because of what Musselman called “our goal-line defense” around the rim, and devastated 19-7 on points off turnovers committing 13 miscues to Arkansas’ eight, Mizzou came back nonetheless.
Twice the Tigers cut it to two only to see two Sills threes.
“He (Sills) is a tough kid, Martin said.”We knew he could drive the ball and shoot the three.”
Again with Brown, Mizzou cut it two (65-63) at 2:43.
Joe and Sills, the latter from the corner with the shot clock expiring, hit threes.
Down, 71-63, the Tigers with a three and a steal and bucket had one 5-0 left in them.
But at 1:10 Joe hit another three followed. Pinson missed another three that Jones rebounded then iced the game upon the ensuing foul.
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3, Sports Action