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 member and past president 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. He has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year 10 times and has been inducted to the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
Like It Is:
Smith was better, and so were the Razorbacks
Arkansas guard Nick Smith Jr. (3) drives as Florida guard Kyle Lofton (11) defends, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, during the second half of the Razorbacks’ 84-65 win over the Gators at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
It certainly appeared the wait was worth it. Nick Smith made the team better in a game that was an Arkansas highlight video.
The 84-65 win against Florida on Saturday wasn’t as close as the lopsided score.
One of the biggest parts of the game was the way the Razorbacks hit the boards, out-rebounding the Gators 40-25 and at one point was on a 17-4 run of grabbing more rebounds. That total went hand in hand with the home team trailing 23-21 to leading 54-33.
With Florida center Colin Castleton out with a broken hand, Jalen Graham came off the bench to stake his claim in the paint, scoring a career-high 26 points with all 12 of his field goals within 3 feet of the basket. He also grabbed seven rebounds.
Arkansas outscored the Gators 52-36 in the paint.
The last inside player for the Razorbacks to show as many moves down low as Graham was Corliss Williamson in the mid-1990’s.
It was a game that made fans scratch their heads and ask how can they play so well against Kentucky and Florida but be stymied by Mississippi State and Texas A&M, both winnable games.
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Regardless, the Razorbacks, who are inching closer to being in the NCAA Tournament, didn’t just rebound well, they shot it great, making 34 of 59 field goal attempts and trying just 10 three-pointers.
And of the eight jumpers they made — and this illustrates that when things are going your way, don’t ask questions — one each was by the Mitchell twins, who are known for blocking shots, rebounding and scoring on lay-ups.
Saturday was little brother’s chance to play big as 6-9 Makhi Mitchell scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while the 6-10 Makhel Mitchell had 4 points and 4 rebounds. Both had two blocks.
Until there were 45 seconds left and Eric Musselman cleared his bench, every player who saw the floor had at least one rebound.
The Razorbacks played smart on both ends of the court. Granted, the Gators did shoot 21 free throws and made 17, which is why the score was as close as it was, only five were in the second half when the Razorbacks outscored the visitors 47-34.
Arkansas led for 28:22 and by as much as 25 midway through the second half.
The Razorbacks are now 18-9 overall and 7-7 in SEC play with just four conference games remaining. If they win only their home games against Georgia and Kentucky, they shouldn’t have any concerns on March 12 when the NCAA Tournament field is announced.
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The two road games are monsters against the two best SEC teams, at least by rankings, in Tennessee and Alabama.
The No. 10 Vols are 12-2 at home, dropping games only to Kentucky and Missouri. Interestingly, Tennessee did lose at Florida 67-54, but the Gators had Castleton, who is now out for the season.
No. 1 Alabama hasn’t lost a conference game at home and the Crimson Tide’s only SEC loss was Wednesday at Tennessee.
Arkansas returns to action Tuesday when it hosts Georgia.
As for how Smith played, all things considered, he was unselfish, in control and a real concern for the Gators, who shadowed his every step.
He kept the Florida defense honest. They couldn’t help on Graham, Ricky Council, who had 15 points, or Anthony Black, who had 14 and also grabbed 5 rebounds and had 3 steals.
Smith has been managing a knee for most of the season, but in his third game back and first to start since Dec. 17 he logged almost 32 minutes and played lockdown defense on the Gators.
On Saturday, Arkansas appeared better with him.
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