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 no longer faint blip on NCAA radar
Arkansas' Coty Clarke (4) and Michael Qualls, right, celebrate during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Jim Lytle)
Many Arkansas Razorbacks teams have been dubbed cardiac kids.
None have earned that title more than this year’s basketball team, which seems to find a way to make every game interesting.
Arkansas held a 15-point lead Saturday with less than seven minutes to play against short-handed Mississippi State in Starkville, but even the most faithful Hogs fan knew it wasn’t time to tilt the recliner back and take a deep breath.
A three-point play by Ky Madden gave Arkansas a 71-56 lead with 6:45 to play at The Hump. That’s when great teams throw down.
Instead, Arkansas made one more field goal but played enough defense to win 73-69, leaving the Bulldogs with a nine-game losing streak, four of those at home, and in a tie with South Carolina for last place in the SEC at 3-11.
It was the Razorbacks’ second road victory of the season. What had been an 800-pound gorilla was reduced to 200 pounds at Vanderbilt, and now the Hogs have doubled the number of road victories from each of the past two seasons.
Also, it should at the very least put the Hogs (18-9, 7-7 SEC) on the NCAA Tournament radar.
The problem is that their next opponent, Kentucky, will be one really angry host Thursday.
Not only did Kentucky lose at Arkansas in overtime Jan. 14, but the mighty Wildcats barely survived LSU 77-76 in overtime Saturday in famed Rupp Arena.
The showdown for the Hogs will be at 6 p.m., on ESPN.
Saturday’s victory put the Razorbacks in a position to enjoy a 20-victory season for the first time since the 2007-08 season when John Pelphrey took Stan Heath’s players to the NCAA Tournament, which was the Hogs’ last tournament appearance.
The Razorbacks threatened to pull away from the Bulldogs several times Saturday, but they went cold on offense each time and it seemed to affect their tenacity on defense.
Yet, a trend that has to be encouraging to Anderson - that being a different Arkansas player stepping up with a career game - continued for the Hogs, who have won three in a row.
Opponents can’t just shut down Bobby Portis or Ky Madden.
Michael Qualls and Coty Clarke played key roles against Vanderbilt and South Carolina, and Saturday it was sophomore Anthlon Bell who came off the bench and scored 19 points - all of them seemed to come in the clutch - to help the Razorbacks escape with the road victory.
There was an early glimpse that it would be one more chapter in the Hogs’ book of thrills and chills, as Arkansas built an 11-point lead but went into halftime ahead 39-35.
The Razorbacks came out of the starting gate and made 7 of 14 three-pointers against the MSU zone - something they are seeing more of as this season closes out - to take a 35-24 lead, but then made 1 of 11 the rest of the way, missing their final 3 three-point attempts of the first half and going 1 of 8 in the second half.
The Razorbacks closed out the first half just as they did the second half, with one field goal over a span of more than six minutes. More important, they let up on defense when they let up on offense. MSU outscored Arkansas 11-4 to end the first half and 13-2 in the second half.
Arkansas was fortunate that Mississippi State struggled from the free-throw line, where the Bulldogs put up enough bricks to help build the Hogs’ practice facility, making 10 of 21.
The difference now, though, is the Razorbacks are not finding a way to lose like they did at Texas A&M, Georgia and Tennessee. They are winning, and the time is now, with four games remaining until the SEC Tournament.
If they continue to find ways to win, and get some help, they could ride two byes into a Friday game at the SEC Tournament.
That could be huge when they hand out March Madness invitations.
Sports, Pages 21 on 02/23/2014