It nearly gave it away down the stretch, but Arkansas basketball finally picked up its first road win of the season Saturday afternoon.
Having already overcome a 13-point deficit, South Carolina missed three go-ahead shots in the final 35 seconds and the Razorbacks hung on for their fourth straight SEC win, winning 65-63 at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.
Arkansas (16-7, 5-5 SEC) probably would have preferred things not to have gone down to the wire, but it managed to avoid blowing its third second-half double-digit lead of the season and losing to the worst team in the conference, so head coach Eric Musselman was more than pleased to simply get over the hump.
“We talked to our team about South Carolina beating Clemson, who’s been a ranked team for a lot of the year, and about them going into Lexington and winning there,” Musselman said. “So any road game is a good win. I think a few weeks ago, this game we played — a very similar tone at LSU — we lost that game.”
The Gamecocks (8-15, 1-9) entered the day at No. 283 in the all-important NET rankings, which is 146 spots lower than the next-closest team in the SEC. That made Saturday the final Quadrant 4 game on Arkansas’ schedule, a loss in which would have been devastating to its NCAA Tournament resume.
For much of the game, the Razorbacks were never really in danger. They took a nine-point lead into halftime and stretched it to 13 early in the second half. When Davonte Davis knocked down a 3-pointer midway through the half, Arkansas still led by nine. That’s when things went south.
“For whatever reason, in the second half defensively we got away from what we were doing,” Musselman said. “We got away from the scouting report, which is a great learning lesson. We started to go under screens, dribble hand-offs by Meechie Johnson and he made us pay for it.”
That proved to be the last shot Arkansas made for a while. During a 6.5-minute scoreless stretch, South Carolina went on a 10-0 run to take a one-point lead with four minutes remaining.
Memories of blown leads at Vanderbilt and Missouri were at the forefront of the minds of Arkansas basketball fans, but the Razorbacks used the final under-4 media timeout to regroup and make this game different than the previous two.
The players even admitted to playing with “desperation,” which can be borderline taboo in basketball this time of year — even when it’s true — because it typically means playing out of control, but Arkansas used it to play with more of an edge.
“The key to this game was desperation,” Ricky Council IV said. “We knew we couldn’t lose this game. I mean, we had games that were must-win, but this was a must-win. They’re one of the bottom teams in the league. They’re still a good team, but they’re one of the bottom teams in the league.”
“We knew we couldn’t lose this game because we were already on a hot streak. This was going to be a big game going into March as far as seeding or even making it, so we knew we couldn’t lose, and we just had to click that in our heads.”
Josh Gray’s go-ahead free throws at the 4:03 mark resulted in the first of six lead changes in the closing minutes. He also had a pair of go-ahead dunks, but it was a layup by Anthony Black that put Arkansas back on top with 1:21 remaining.
The Gamecocks’ best chance to retake the lead came on their penultimate possession, when Gray fed Hayden Brown — who got by Jordan Walsh — on a cut to the basket, but Makhel Mitchell came over to help and forced him into a tough reverse layup.
Brown missed the shot and after the ball was tipped into the air a couple of times, Black secured the rebound with 2.5 seconds remaining. He then knocked down 1 of 2 free throws, giving South Carolina another glimmer of hope, but it had to settle for a deep 3 at the buzzer by Gray — his first attempt from beyond the arc all season — and he missed badly.
“That was the guy that just catching the ball, that was our No. 1 option,” Musselman said. “We did not want, under any circumstances, GG Jackson or Meechie Johnson, to catch the ball — under any circumstances. Face guard, double team, triple team if they did get a catch in the backcourt, so really proud of them executing that.”
It may not have been the prettiest of finishes and Arkansas came nowhere close to covering the 12.5-point spread, but it was a much better result than its first five road games and it got them back to .500 in SEC play with a 5-5 record.
“‘Road rage’ was our game theme coming into tonight,” Musselman said. “We tried to do something to loosen the mood. I probably should have talked about it at halftime. I didn’t. But I thought it helped us get off to a good start as we had a little bit of fun with it pregame. I just kind of talked about what happens when you’re in a traffic jam, and what you’ve got to do? You’ve gotta go through, around, over, whatever.”
The Jalen Graham Enigma
Especially in the first half, Jalen Graham was unstoppable for Arkansas on Saturday.
The Arizona State transfer has received sporadic minutes throughout the season, but came up big off the bench against South Carolina, scoring a team-high 16 points on 8 of 10 shooting.
Graham actually made his first six shots and accounted for one-third of the Razorbacks’ first-half scoring (12 of 36 points).
“I ain’t going to lie, I’m always going to try to score, try to attack,” Graham said. “That’s my mentality. If I feel like I can take somebody one-on-one, that’s what I’m going to do. Today, I just felt like they weren’t really doubling and I feel like I can beat pretty much anybody one-on-one if they give me the opportunity by guarding me straight up.”
The 16 points matched Graham’s season high, which he previously reached against UNC Asheville and Alabama. He was 8 of 10 from the floor in those games, too, and didn’t start any of them.
His three games this season in which he’s made at least eight field goals off the bench is tied for the third-most since Arkansas joined the SEC, according to HogStats, tying Jannero Pargo (2001-02), Brandon Dean (1999-00), Al Dillard (1993-94) and Corliss Williamson (1992-93). Only BJ Young (five in 2011-12) and JD Notae (four in 2020-21) have had more such performances in a single season for the Razorbacks.
“Like I said all year, Jalen, that can be any day,” teammate Ricky Council IV said. “He’s one of the most skilled bigs I’ve ever played with. Any day, any time he gets a chance to play and he’s ready to play, that can happen.”
However, Graham played only 21 minutes and Eric Musselman said there are still things he needs to clean up to earn more consistent playing time. He had only one defensive rebound and three turnovers against the Gamecocks — numbers that Musselman continues to point out.
In addition to averaging a team-high 21.7 points per 40 minutes, Graham leads the team with 5.3 turnovers per 40 minutes. He has also grabbed just 5.1 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes in SEC play, which is fewer than Makhi Mitchell (8.5), Makhel Mitchell (6.3) and Jordan Walsh (5.7) and the same rate as Davonte Davis, a guard.
“People respect his offensive ability, but if you look at his turnovers per minute and defensive rebounds per minute, we need those to (improve),” Musselman said. “That’s a big part of how we can get him on the floor a little bit more because certainly from an offensive scoring standpoint, Jalen is a really special offensive player.”
Devo Does it Again
Perhaps no player has been more important as Arkansas basketball has seemingly turned a corner than Davonte Davis. The junior continued his streak of double-digit scoring Saturday, while also playing his usual lockdown defense.
The latter part of that is hard to fully understand by simply looking at a box score, even though he had another two steals, but it is impossible to ignore when watching him play.
Davis is typically tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player and that meant defending projected first-round pick GG Jackson II in the matchup with South Carolina. He limited the freshman phenom to only 9 points on 3 of 8 shooting in 33 minutes.
The eight shots were tied for the fewest he’s taken all year, matching the eight he took in 22 minutes against Tennessee, and well below his average of 15.4 attempts in SEC play. He entered the game averaging 16.1 points on the season.
“How ferocious he is on defense, how hard he plays on defense, we need a guy like that every game,” teammate Jalen Graham said. “He’s always been there guarding the best players and just shutting them down.”
In the final couple minutes, after sophomore guard Meechie Johnson had torched the Razorbacks and helped South Carolina dig out of its large deficit, Davis switched onto the Ohio State transfer and prevented Johnson from getting any good looks in the Gamecocks’ upset bid.
“I thought we did a great job (against) who we deemed coming into the game their star player, GG Jackson,” Musselman said. “We assigned Devo Davis to GG Jackson in the first half, and then we made the switch later on, late in the game, to have Ricky slide over to GG Jackson and have Devo guard Meechie Johnson, as we felt Devo would have a much better chance getting over those dribble hand-offs, where he was stepping back and hitting 3s.”
What makes Davis’ play of late even more impressive is that he’s been just as good on the offensive end. He scored 15 points on 5 of 12 shooting Saturday, marking the eighth straight game he’s reached double figures — twice as long as any previous such streak in his career. It was also the fewest points he’s scored during that stretch.
Most of Davis’ offensive production came from beyond the arc, where he was 4 of 10. The rest of the team was 0 of 5. It’s the second straight game he’s hit four 4-pointers, matching a career high, and he’s now shooting 44.4% (20 of 45) from deep over the last eight games. He was shooting 17.9% prior to that stretch.
“His 3-point shooting is really what has become extremely valuable to us, and he’s doing a great job of not shooting the threes off the bounce,” Musselman said. “For the most part he’s shooting them with his feet set. So (I’m) really happy with the confidence level that he has shown.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
After beating South Carolina, Arkansas basketball will now try to start a road winning streak. This matchup will be much tougher, though, as the Razorbacks are set to take on Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Tuesday.
The Wildcats struggled throughout non-conference play and then got off to a 1-3 start in the SEC, but they seem to be playing much better of late. They hung on for a 72-67 win over Florida on Saturday to extend their SEC winning streak to six games and improve to 16-7 (7-3 SEC).
Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. CT and the game will be televised on ESPN.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- South Carolina’s Chico Carter entered Saturday as one of the top 3-point shooters in the country, making 48.9% of his attempts. That was the best mark by a major-conference player, and fourth-best in all of Division I, among those with at least 80 attempts. He missed his lone shot from beyond the arc against the Razorbacks, marking his second-fewest attempts in a game this year and just the fourth time he failed to connect from deep.
- Despite starting the game, Makhi Mitchell played a season-low 5 minutes against the Gamecocks. His previous low was 9 minutes against Creighton on Nov. 22. None of those minutes came in the second half, but it was not due to injury. “That was a coach’s decision, for sure,” Musselman said. “We went with Jordan a majority of the second half, and we felt like we needed some points on the interior by Jalen Graham.”
- Freshman Jordan Walsh scored only 4 points, but matched his career high with 10 rebounds. He also had 10 boards against Auburn on Jan. 7. Saturday’s total included a career-high six offensive rebounds.
- Despite averaging only 3.4 points coming into the game, South Carolina big man Josh Gray turned in the best game of his career with 20 points and 14 rebounds in 27 minutes. The 20 points were easily the most he’s ever scored, topping the 11 he had against Florida on Jan. 25, while the 14 rebounds matched his career high set in the Gamecocks’ last game, which was against Mississippi State.
- It was Legends Weekend in Columbia, so several South Carolina greats were at the game and honored at halftime. Included among them was Alex English, who was an eight-time NBA All-Star during the 1980s and was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997.
Arkansas vs South Carolina Highlights
Arkansas vs South Carolina Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs South Carolina Box Score
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