Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year four times and has been inducted to the Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame.
Hogs weren't horsing around at UK
Arkansas' Jordan Walsh, left, is pressured by Kentucky's Chris Livingston (24) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. Arkansas won 88-73. (AP Photo/James Crisp)
FAYETTEVILLE — A few hours before the University of Arkansas men’s basketball team played Kentucky on Tuesday night at Rupp Arena, Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman took a short break from game preparations.
With most of the hay already in the barn for Kentucky, Musselman visited a thoroughbred farm in Lexington, Ky.
Riley Hall, the Razorbacks’ director of internal operations, was going to meet racehorse owner Michael Hui — a UA graduate who lives in Little Rock — at Jonabell Farm to give him some basketball tickets.
Arkansas’ players were resting after a shootaround, and it was a couple of hours before the pregame meal, so Musselman and some other staff members went with Hall to the farm.
During a brief visit, the staff saw three thoroughbred champions — Belmont Stakes winner Essential Quality, Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist and Travers Stakes winner Medaglia d’Oro, who also won the 2003 Oaklawn Handicap in Hot Springs.
“There was only so much more we could talk about,” Musselman said. “We had enough mini-film sessions.
“Just like the NCAA Tournament or whatever, I think it’s always good to be able to step away from basketball for a short timeframe.”
The horse farm visit fit perfectly into Musselman’s pregame message to the Razorbacks with the SEC matchup being played 78 miles from the Louisville home of the Kentucky Derby.
“Give you a quick history lesson,” Musselman said in the locker room before tipoff in a video posted on Arkansas’ basketball Twitter account. “We are in the state of Kentucky, and 20,000 racehorses are born every year in the United States.
“Only .001% of those horses will be able to race in the Kentucky Derby. It’s not only a special achievement to just make the Kentucky Derby, but a legacy builder happens immediately upon winning the Kentucky Derby.
“So our legacy can begin tonight with a win. Automatically with a win in two hours, you gain national respect — to win in this building.
“This game is the talk of college basketball. Relish it, and let’s go out and compete and get a win.”
The Razorbacks followed their coach’s instructions and were off to the races in beating the Wildcats 88-73 before an announced crowd of 19,855 and ESPN’s national television audience.
Arkansas’ 15-point victory was the second-largest margin of defeat Kentucky has suffered in Rupp Arena in John Calipari’s 14 seasons as the Wildcats’ coach.
Alabama won at Kentucky by 20 points, 85-65, in 2021.
The Razorbacks turned the game into the Arkansas Derby as they outscored Kentucky 20-10 in fast-break points, including 18-3 in a dominant second half.
It was the most fast-break points the Razorbacks have scored in seven road games this season.
Arkansas freshman point guard Anthony Black had all five of his steals in the second half, including two on back-to-back possessions that led to dunks during an 11-3 run that pushed the Razorbacks’ lead from 41-40 at halftime to 52-43 with 17:29 left.
The Razorbacks had 7 of their 10 steals in the second half when they outscored the Wildcats 16-5 in points off turnovers to finish with a 23-10 edge.
“Yeah, that’s our team — defense,” Arkansas junior guard Davonte Davis said. “That’s how we get our offense rolling.
“AB got two steals and got two dunks right off the jump. Can’t ask for nothing better than that.”
Black’s steals to start the second half came on passes he intercepted like a cornerback reading a quarterback’s eyes and set the tone for the rest of the game.
“I was just so disappointed,” Calipari said. “Turnover, turnover, dunk, dunk.
“I’ve got to call a timeout a minute into the half, and am literally like, ‘Come on. How did you lose that? How did you not get that ball?’ ”
Points off turnovers helped the Razorbacks shoot 72% (18 of 25) in the second half, but they also burned the Wildcats repeatedly with baskets on pick-and-rolls.
“We ran four different sets and had that middle pick and roll,” Musselman said on Arkansas’ postgame radio show. “Our Suns set we did not use the entire first half.
“We used it nine straight times in the second half and I thought it helped us really open up the floor.”
It’s a pick-and-roll set Musselman, a former NBA coach, took from the Phoenix Suns when they were coached by Mike D’Antoni and had guards Steve Nash and Damon Stoudemire.
“Just a middle pick-and-roll with some different options on the backside that you can do with the screen-setter,” Musselman said. “We executed it really well. We had really good spacing.
“One of the things that you learn coaching at the NBA level is that if a play works, you probably want to go to it over and over and over and over. So that was a heavily utilized set for us for sure.”
Arkansas (17-7, 6-5) won its fifth consecutive SEC game with five players in double figures. Junior guard Ricky Council scored 20 points, Black 19, Davis and senior forward Makhel Mitchell 15 each and freshman forward Jordan Walsh 13
The Razorbacks hit 20 of 24 free throws to help them score the most points Kentucky allowed in a home game since UCLA beat the Wildcats 97-92 in Rupp Arena on Dec. 3, 2016.
Arkansas had 7 blocked shots with 5 by Mitchell, 1 by Black and 1 by Walsh.
The Razorbacks’ 62.7% shooting (32 of 51) matched their record for an SEC game. They also shot 62.7% (37 of 59) in a 94-61 victory at Missouri in 2016.
Arkansas became the first Kentucky opponent to shoot at least 60% from the field since Florida shot 64% (32 of 50) on March 4, 2007 in beating the Wildcats 85-72 in Gainesville, Fla., en route to winning a second consecutive national championship.
When Musselman talked with media on a postgame Zoom call, he wore a hat with “Essential Quality” written on the front in honor one of the thoroughbred champions he met earlier in the day.
That writing on Musselman’s hat also summed up the game — which turned into the Arkansas Derby.
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