Fans were streaming toward the exits before the final media timeout Tuesday night, but those familiar with Arkansas basketball this season know that no lead is safe, especially on the road.
This time, though, the Razorbacks didn’t relinquish their double-digit lead and came away with a dominant 88-73 win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena. It was the Wildcats’ second-worst home loss of the John Calipari era, trailing only a 20-point defeat at the hands of Alabama two years ago.
Despite never trailing by more than two in the first half and holding a two-possession lead for all but 58 seconds in the second half, Arkansas (17-7, 6-5 SEC) didn’t let up because it had previously blown 10-point leads in losses at Vanderbilt and Missouri, plus nearly squandered a 13-point lead at South Carolina.
“I told the guys, ‘Stay locked in. We’re not worried about that,’” Davonte Davis said about Big Blue Nation’s early departure. “We did see that, but we wanted to make sure we finished the game because we know we have a tendency to just let leads up on accident, and we wanted to make sure we kept the lead that we had, and I think we did a pretty good job doing that.”
For Davis, the win was extra special because he improved to 3-0 all-time against the Wildcats (16-8, 7-4) and became the first player in Arkansas basketball history to win in consecutive trips to Rupp Arena.
In fact, it’s just the sixth time in the building’s illustrious 47-year history that an SEC team has accomplished the feat and only the second time in the past 16 seasons.
|Arkansas||2021 and 2023|
|Tennessee*||2020 and 2021|
|Florida||2006 and 2007|
|Vanderbilt||2006 and 2007|
|Florida||1988 and 1989|
|LSU||1979 and 1990|
“The fuel was it’s Rupp Arena,” Anthony Black said. “Not everybody gets to play in there. I don’t know how many times I’m going to get to play in there, if I ever get to play there again. I was just thinking, ‘It’s a special arena, special venue. Just come out and try to play hard, because it’s a lot of people who want to play in there.’”
The 15-point margin of victory was also the Razorbacks’ second-largest ever in the series, trailing only the 17-point beatdown they handed the Wildcats in their first meeting as SEC foes back in 1992. That game was also at Rupp Arena.
Arkansas has now won three straight games in the series for just the second time, as well. The other three-game winning streak included a home win in 2013 and then wins at home and on the road in 2014.
“I haven’t lost to Kentucky yet since I’ve played for Arkansas,” Davis said. “I for sure had some (confidence) coming in, just knowing that the last time I played in Rupp with the team two years prior to this year, we came in and won.
“It was tough, of course, it’s Kentucky — really well-coached program all around, it’s a blue blood. We just wanted to come in here and just fight and I think we as a collective group did that.”
As sweet as it was to blow out a rival on the road, the win over Kentucky was also vitally important to the Razorbacks’ NCAA Tournament resume. The Wildcats entered the day at No. 32 in the NET rankings, so it will be just the second Quadrant 1 victory of the season for Arkansas basketball.
The Razorbacks had been just 1-5 in those games this season and Tuesday marked the first of four Q1 opportunities in their final eight games — all away from the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena. With a lack of quality wins, Arkansas found itself not quite on the bubble, but dangerously close to it, so beating Kentucky gives it some breathing room.
“There’s not many teams in the country that could play with these type of injuries we’ve dealt with and the quality of players that have not been able to participate with us and find a way,” head coach Eric Musselman said. “It’s a resilient group. I’m really proud of them.”
Arkansas’ Offensive Onslaught
There have been times this season when Arkansas looked offensively challenged. Eric Musselman even admitted as such. That seems so long ago, especially after what unfolded in Lexington, Ky.
The Razorbacks shot a scorching 53.8% (14 of 26) from the floor in the first half and were even better after halftime, going 18 of 25 (72.0%). The result was a 62.7% overall shooting performance.
It was the highest shooting percentage by a Kentucky opponent since March 4, 2007, when eventual national champion Florida shot 64% against the Wildcats. It also broke the UA record for an SEC game by a fraction of a percentage point.
The Razorbacks officially shot 62.7% against Missouri on Jan. 12, 2016, but they were 37 of 59 in that game. Rounded to an extra decimal, that comes out to 62.71% — just shy of the 62.75% (32 of 51) they shot Tuesday.
“I thought it was our best ball movement of the season, to be honest with you,” Musselman said. “We did a really good job of spacing the floor, as well. I didn’t think that we had too many guys crowding the lane. I thought we spaced it out well where we had dribble-drive angles. Our bigs did a really good job of rolling behind the pick-and-roll coverage.”
Ball movement doesn’t always translate to a bunch of assists, but the Razorbacks did notch 19 on their 32 buckets. That is their most in a game since racking up 20 in their final non-conference tune-up game against UNC Asheville before Christmas.
Most of those assists came from Arkansas’ starting trio of guards, with Davonte Davis leading the way with a season-high seven dimes, followed by Anthony Black (5) and Ricky Council IV (4).
“When we’re unselfish like that, I think we could shoot a high percentage like that every game,” Black said. “We were just really unselfish tonight, had a lot of run-outs. We just took good shots overall, even ones that didn’t drop.”
Shutting Down the Reigning National POTY
A major point of emphasis heading into Tuesday’s Arkansas vs Kentucky showdown was figuring out a way to slow down the Wildcats’ big man, Oscar Tshiebwe.
En route to earning National Player of the Year honors last season, Tshiebwe turned in an incredible 30-point, 18-rebound performance in a losing effort at Bud Walton Arena. He played all but 35 seconds in that game and also notched 3 blocks, 2 assists and 1 steal while not turning it over once.
The Razorbacks held him way under those totals this go around, as he finished with only 7 points and 7 rebounds. It was his fewest rebounds since grabbing only six against Alabama exactly one month earlier.
“We felt that Makhi and Makhel (Mitchell) would be matchups that they could body and meet-and-greet and kind of try to meet him at the foul line so he couldn’t establish great post position,” Musselman said. “Then I thought we did an awesome job of digging in the post when he did catch it and kind of playing a bit of a yo-yo defense where guys are in and out, just trying to make him play a little bit in space.”
Starting together once again, the Mitchell twins — especially Makhel, who had five blocks — did an excellent job of preventing Tshiebwe from doing much offensively. He was 3 of 6 from the floor, but that included a couple of jumpers, once of which banked in from the free throw line.
“We knew Khel was gonna be there when it came to guarding Oscar,” Davonte Davis said. “He wasn’t going to miss him. We know Khel is a good shot blocker. He’s also going to keep Oscar in front of him, and he did exactly that, and I think he did really, really good on Oscar.”
While Makhi was cleaning up the boards (team-high 9 rebounds), Makhel was an offensive threat and actually exploited his matchup against Tshiebwe, resulting in a season-high 15 points on 7 of 9 shooting.
“We came into the game wanting to attack the pick-and-roll,” Davis said. “We knew that their coverages weren’t that good. Just knowing that Oscar wasn’t up to par on the pick-and-rolls, we knew we wanted to just continue to the goal and feed the bigs rolling down to the paint.”
Guard Trio Delivers
In the absence of Nick Smith Jr., who remains out indefinitely for “right knee management,” the trio of Anthony Black, Davonte Davis and Ricky Council IV has stepped up and filled the void for the Razorbacks.
Those three players combined for 54 points, 10 rebounds, 16 assists and 7 steals in the win over Kentucky, providing the backbone of the 15-point victory.
Still clearly not 100% healthy, even appearing to tweak his knee injury during the game, Black also blew out a shoe — and had to wear teammate Jalen Graham’s shoes the rest of the way — and seemed to also be dealing with a cold based on how he sounded in his postgame interview with reporters.
Despite all of that, the freshman phenom turned in an all-around performance with 19 points on 8 of 15 shooting, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 steals and 1 block. He did have six turnovers, but not quantifiable was his toughness, which Musselman described as “incredible.”
“He always fills the stat sheets and he also does the small things that you don’t even see, such as like tagging rollers and doing things like that on the defensive end that will help us out,” Davis said. “It’s not a surprise that Anthony’s doing what he’s doing. I expect it and he knows that I expect even more.”
Council overtook Black in scoring late in the game, finishing with a team-high 20 points on just 5 of 9 shooting. He reached the 20-point mark for the eighth time this season by knocking down 2 of 3 attempts from beyond the arc and 8 of 10 free throws. On top of that, he had 4 assists and 3 rebounds, and is now averaging 18.5 points over the past four games.
Davis notched his ninth straight game with at least 15 points, finishing with exactly that many on 6 of 11 shooting, including 1 of 2 from deep. Most impressively, he dished a season-high 7 assists while adding 3 rebounds and 2 steals.
“I can’t tell you, from a shot-selection standpoint, how proud I am of him playing to win tonight,” Musselman said. “Because he’s been shooting the 3 at a really high level and he took what the defense gave him.
“Sometimes when somebody takes 10 threes and makes four, the next game they come out and they hunt for that shot. Just really proud of his maturity and his game management tonight. … I thought his basketball decision-making was probably the best since I’ve been around him. He played to win the game and he tried to do every possible thing that he could to help us come out of Rupp with a W.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
After back-to-back road games, the Arkansas basketball team will finally be back at Bud Walton Arena on Saturday. The Razorbacks welcome Mississippi State for a 5 p.m. CT tip on ESPNU.
The Bulldogs are 15-8 overall and 3-7 in conference play heading into Wednesday’s matchup against LSU, which is scheduled for 8 p.m. on the SEC Network.
That means Arkansas will get an extra 24 hours to prepare for the matchup compared to Mississippi State.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- The Razorbacks wore red road jerseys at Kentucky, but they were a new look, featuring the famous slobbering Hog logo on the chest.
- Eric Musselman reached a milestone with Tuesday’s win, as it was the 200th of his college coaching career. It comes in just his eighth season (four at Nevada, four at Arkansas) and improves him to 200-69 (.743). That includes a 90-35 (.720) record with the Razorbacks.
- Kentucky head coach John Calipari received a technical foul for arguing with the officials with 33.3 seconds left. Anthony Black converted both free throws, playing a huge role in Arkansas heading into halftime with a one-point lead instead of one-point deficit. Afterward, according to Kentucky Sports Radio’s Matt Jones, one of the officials who levied the technical foul was seen yelling at particularly boisterous fans and, apparently, even tried to get them ejected.
- Arkansas dominated Kentucky in both scoring in the paint (46-28), points off turnovers (23-10) and fast-break points (20-10).
- The Wildcats were without starting point guard Sahvir Wheeler against the Razorbacks. He tweaked his right ankle in practice Monday, according to the ESPN broadcast. He’s averaging 7.7 points and 5.6 assists this season.
*Tennessee won back to back games at Kentucky in January 1976 and January 1977. That first win, however, was at the Coliseum in Lexington before Rupp Arena opened for the 1976-77 season.
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