Nate Allen Sports
FAYETTEVILLE – As a 265-pound high school guard in DeSoto, Texas, Mason Jones was just too big to recruit to Texas State University, TSU Bobcats Coach Danny Kaspar believed.
Now playing for Arkansas, Jones proved too big for his Bobcats, Kaspar said.
Slimmed to 6-5, 198 after one year at Triple A Academy prep school and one year at Connors State Community College, Arkansas sophomore guard Jones tallied a game-leading 21 points, grabbed four rebounds, dished four assists and made three steals leading the Razorbacks to a 73-70 victory over the Sun Belt Conference Bobcats at Walton Arena in their last game prior to Christmas.
Arkansas improved to 8-3 while TSU, now 10-2, lost its 8-game winning streak. In the victory, sophomore center Daniel Gafford added 19 points and 10 rebounds in double-double support. The Razorbacks returned to practice today for this Friday night’s game against Austin Peay at Walton.
“He (Jones) was overweight in high school,” Kaspar said in the postgame. “We didn’t recruit him but we should have. We didn’t really have an answer for Gafford. I’m not sure many are going to have an answer for him. He’s a good player. But I thought Mason Jones was the one player who made the difference in the game today. He was very efficient against us.”
Efficient and timely, too.
Starting sluggishly their last two games at Walton which they lost 78-77 to Western Kentucky on Dec. 8 and 69-65 last Wednesday to Georgia Tech, the Razorbacks wallowed early again. They trailed 19-6 with the Bobcats on a 13-0 run when Jones picked off a pass by TSU freshman Mason Harrell, drove to the hole and was fouled by TSU’s Shelby Adams. Mason completed the 3-point and-one at 10:55 initiating Arkansas’ 17-0 run.
“That was something that got them going,” Kaspar said “It got their team energized and got their crown energized.”
The run included another Jones and-one 3-point play at 9:07, a Jones assist for a Gafford and-one 3-point play at 7:43 and finally a Jones 3-pointer completing the 17-0 run with Arkansas up 23-19 at 6:37.
Arkansas concluded intermission up 34-27.
TSU did tie it once, 38-38 with 14:30 left in the game. The Bobcats were only down 53-51 when another Jones and-one pulled Arkansas up 55-51 at 5:13. Jones, 10 of 13 on free throws, hit a run of consecutive free throws at 4:59 and 4:13 before Isaiah Joe’s three at 3:38 put Arkansas up 63-53.
Joe’s three was the only one he made in five attempts but he hit 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch.
Gafford, 6 of 8 free throws, also made key freebies and got TSU 6-8 center Eric Terry (playing just nine minutes) in early foul trouble.
After hitting but 8 of 14 first-half free throws and committing 12 first-half turnovers, Arkansas in the second half sunk 20 of 26 free throws and committed but three more turnovers.
“The one thing we did going down the stretch, we made free throws,” Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said. “And we took care of the basketball much better in the second half than we did in the first half.”
TSU outscored Arkansas 17-10 off turnovers in the first half.
“I think we reversed that in the second half where we were able to score off some of their turnovers,” Anderson said.
The Razorbacks needed most every free throw because other than Arkansas’ 17-0 run overcoming the TSU, 13-0 run, the Bobcats clawed all the way even cutting the final margin from down eight with 35 seconds left to down three at the finish.
“We started off strong and and Arkansas counter punched and knocked us down and we were a little slow to to get up,” Kaspar said. “Other than stretch right there we played pretty good.”
They might have won but for shooting an abysmal 4 of 12 free throws.
“Our team is a better free throw shooting team than was seen,” Kaspar said. “This was one of our worst showings as far as free throw and that can be due to fatigue because Arkansas puts so much pressure on you. We had some tired dudes tonight.”
Kaspar said his normal top three scorers, Nijal Pearson (averaging 19.9 but needing 14 second-half points to finish with 16), Tre Nottingham (18 points) and Alex Peacock (three points) “only shot 13 of 41 and that’s not going to cut it. They did a good job on our top scorers.
Jaylen Snead scored 14 for TSU while Joe and Jalen Harris scored 10 each for Arkansas.
Sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien, taking two key charges, scoring four points with five rebounds and four assists, including a spectacular one to Gafford, contributed most off the bench.
But it started with Jones.
“I thought Mason was big,” Anderson said. “We started attacking the basket and that was a big difference. The game sped up and of course he had the hot hand. He showed another part of his game going off the dribble. He’d get to the basket, or pull up or find somebody else or get to the free throw line. You’ve got to have somebody step up and make plays and that’s kind of what has been missing.”
Jones saw another team opportunity going by so he seized it each half
“I just felt like both times my team needed a spark from somebody,” Jones said. “Coach A told me to step up. I was that guy today making the right plays at the right time when we needed it.”
And Kaspar lamenting he didn’t see his need for Jones way back when.
“I can’t blame him,” Jones said. “I was a pretty big fella.”
Nate Allen Sports