Wally Hall is the managing sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock after an honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force, he is a past president and member of the Football Writers Association of America, member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, past president and current executive committee and board member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
LIKE IT IS:
Hogs coach presses all the right buttons
Arkansas' head coach Mike Anderson celebrates after a foul call during the second half an NCAA college basketball game against Florida in Fayetteville, Ark., Tuesday Feb. 5, 2013. Arkansas defeated No. 2 Florida 80-69. (AP Photo/Gareth Patterson)
FAYETTEVILLE John Pelphrey got a light but warm welcome back to Walton Arena on Tuesday night, and then the always nice guy must have asked himself where all that noise came from.
Almost from the opening tip, a loud crowd roared life into the Arkansas Razorbacks as the home team stormed out to a 43-26 halftime lead over the No. 2 Florida Gators, who went into Tuesday night’s game 8-0 in SEC play and appeared ready to run away with the regular-season crown, which they still might do.
Florida is good, very good, but it ran into the almost perfect Razorbacks storm.
Arkansas should have been tired, playing its third game in six days, and it was going up against one of the hottest teams in the country.
Mike Anderson may have enjoyed watching the shooting clinic his team put on in the opening half, but hewas working hard from the bench to make it possible for his team to have the legs to stand up to the expected run the Gators would make in the second half. They threatened but could never get past the in-your-face, half-court pressure defense the Hogs pounded them with.
Billy Donovan’s teams are always a threat, especially this talented group, and there is probably little doubt the Gators didn’t expect to see the most focused team the Razorbacks have put on the court this season.
Anderson didn’t use his full-court press in the first half or the second, and that was a two-sword attack for the Razorbacks, because Florida is a great passing team that eats up full-court pressure and it saved energy for the critical final 20 minutes.
Plus, Anderson went to his bench often, using 11 players in the first half with eight scoring.
More surprisingly, five made three-pointers and that’s been the biggest thing missing from the Razorbacks’ offensive attack this season.
Saying the Hogs came out hot would be like saying Tuesday was a very mild February day.
Hitting 14 of their first 18 shots, in front of a crowd that at least sounded like a sellout, the Razorbacks took a 36-13 lead. While Arkansas practically couldn’t miss, the Gators couldn’t hit anything, managing only four field goals in the first 11 minutes.
The Hogs cooled down the stretch of the opening half, making only 2 of their final 11 shots, but their defense played tough enough to limit the Gators.
Probably the most impressive play of the first half was on the boards, where Arkansas is usually beaten, but the Razorbacks fought hard and had a 19-13 lead.
The defense may not have been 94 feet of pressure, but it still accounted for seven turnovers and 12 points in the early going.
Arkansas opened the second half by scoring the first six points and then the jets cooled as the Hogs struggled in their half-court offense so much that the shot clock presented almost as much trouble as Florida’s defense. But their defense kept pounding the Gators, plus the visitors were missing a few point-blank shots.
A year ago, Donovan spanked the Hogs by 30, never calling off the dogs, and it was probably because his close friend, Pelphrey, had been fired as the head coach of the Razorbacks.
Donovan really didn’t have answers Tuesday night and got little help from his bench.
Anderson spent the second half masterfully making the right substitutions at the right time. When it appeared momentum might be swinging toward Florida, he sent in fresh legs and a six-point run put the Hogs up 59-37 with 12:31 to play.
Suddenly the Gators were having trouble getting back on defense, which is what these Hogs relish.
A dunk by BJ Young made it 63-40, and the crowd was on its feet anticipating the biggest victory here in too many years.
Patric Young’s fourth foul turned into a pair of free throws by Coty Clarke, whoseconds later took a fast-break lob and jammed it in for a 67-40 lead.
Payback was on the horizon.
The Gators cut it to 72-59 with 3:52 to play, but Anderson used a timeout to calm his team defensively and get more aggressive offensively, and Michael Qualls responded by racing down the baseline for a dunk.
Florida still had a chance, but it started jacking up threes from all over the place. With 1:35 left, Young hit two free throws before Anderson started clearing his bench.
The perfect storm had blown through Walton Arena, and it sent the No. 2 team in the country dropping in the next poll.
Sports, Pages 19 on 02/06/2013