NORTH LITTLE ROCK — As soon as it realized what had happened, the fans inside Simmons Bank Arena gave Jordan Walsh an electric standing ovation as he jogged to the bench after fouling out Saturday afternoon.
It was well-earned, as the freshman played the best game of his young career in No. 10 Arkansas’ dominant 76-57 win over Bradley.
Walsh was a perfect 7 of 7 from the floor, including one 3-pointer, and finished with a game-high 18 points, not to mention four steals, three rebounds and an assist in just 28 minutes. The crowd of 16,675 recognized the performance and reacted accordingly, which didn’t go unnoticed.
“When you come out of a game, when you’re forced to stop playing, and you can no longer help your team on the court, it takes a little bit out of you,” Walsh said. “To have the fans support you and cheer for you even when you’re off the court or you’re done playing, it means a lot because then you know, ‘OK, I can come back next game and continue playing and they’re still going to love me.’”
Almost from the jump, Walsh was the best player on the floor. After a Makhi Mitchell layup opened the scoring for Arkansas, it was the freshman who pushed the Razorbacks through a rocky offensive start.
On back-to-back possessions, he drove baseline and turned it into points. The first came on a physical layup, then he was fouled on the second one and made both free throws. It was the first of several times he got the rim and converted.
“He’s a very talented player,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “They bullied us to the rim a bunch, especially to start the game. We didn’t hold our ground, we didn’t chest them up and own our territory, own our one-on-one battles.”
More than 14 minutes into the game, Walsh was single-handedly outscoring the Braves. He had 16 points and the Razorbacks led 25-14 with 5.5 minutes left in the half.
It was a continuation of what started a week earlier in Tulsa, when he matched his season high with 12 points in an 88-78 win over Oklahoma.
“Jordan Walsh just keeps getting better,” head coach Eric Musselman said. “You can see his confidence continue to grow each game. The last two games the energy that he’s played with has been really, really on another level.”
Walsh almost seems like an entirely different player since Trevon Brazile went down with a torn ACL against UNC Greensboro. Instead of being timid on the offensive end, he playing much more loose and with a lot of freedom.
Showing Out for Arkansas Basketball
“It gave me a lot of confidence, and also talking with Muss,” Walsh said. “Muss told me before the Oklahoma game, ‘Just play with more confidence.’ As soon as he told me that, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m fixing to turn up.’”
Walsh definitely made good on those words. Included in his 16 first-half points was a 3-pointer from the left wing that looked good as soon as it left his hands. That makes him 3 of 6 from beyond the arc over the last two games. Throw in the fact that he’s been doing to the rim with authority much better than before and Musselman has been very pleased with his progression.
“He’s playing with great confidence, No. 1,” Musselman said. “I think No. 2, he’s making threes with his feet set. He’s not taking a high volume, but the quality of shot selection Jordan has had has been very, very good.”
About the only negative of his performance Saturday was the fact that he fouled out with 7:06 remaining and only three of them were personal fouls.
He received a technical for taunting at the 11:16 mark in the second half, as he tapped his head after Jalen Graham dunked over a Bradley player.
“My emotions get the best of me sometimes,” Walsh said. “When (Graham) dunked on that kid, it kinda sparked something in me. I was celebrating, I was tapping my head, looking at the dude, and the ref was like, ‘You can’t do that, Jordan. You know you can’t do that.’”
Walsh’s fourth and fifth fouls happened simultaneously. He was assessed a personal foul and then, after a video review by the officials, they also gave him a flagrant foul that took him out of the game. Musselman said he wasn’t given an explanation and didn’t seem to want to discuss it when asked about the play afterward.
The freshman handled it well, though, as he walked to the Bradley bench to shake Wardle’s hand before making his way back to his bench, which is when the crowd gave him the loud ovation.
If he can clean up the unnecessary fouls, Walsh seems to have turned a corner and be living up to his five-star rating coming out of high school.
“We need him to play how he’s been playing the last couple of games,” teammate Anthony Black said. “We’ve seen it kind of in spurts throughout the year, but now he’s starting to put full games together.”
A case could be made that Arkansas won the game with its defense, as it forced a whopping 27 turnovers that it turned into 37 points.
It was a stark contrast to what Bradley managed. The Razorbacks turned it over just 11 times and the Braves turned them into nine points.
“We’ve got be tougher and take care of the ball,” Wardle said. “Turnovers killed us, killed all of our runs. Any time we had momentum, we turned the ball over in bunches. When we didn’t turn it over, we usually got good shots and did good things offensively.”
The turnovers were particularly big early on. All but four of Arkansas’ first 20 points came off turnovers and it ended up forcing 16 in the first half.
It was the fourth time the Razorbacks have forced at least 20 in 11 games this season. They had just three such performances last year.
“I thought our physicality, our length, all those things and being aggressive defensively is in our DNA,” Musselman said. “I think the aggressiveness defensively is maybe a little bit ahead of where we thought it might be at this time of the year.”
Jordan Walsh was a major benefactor of the turnovers about midway through the first half, as he got back-to-back fast-break dunks in the midst of an 11-0 run that essentially put the game away.
“We get a lot of our momentum when we get steals and dunks in transition,” Black said. “I think we got two steals in a row and two scores for Jordan back-to-back. That was just a lot of momentum for us.”
The Razorbacks are now forcing 18.6 turnovers per game and Musselman said it’s the result of things they’ve worked on in practice — but the physical makeup of the team is also a major reason.
“We’ve talked a lot about trying to attack the dribble — when the ball hits the floor and is coming back up to the palm of the ball handler, to try to be really aggressive with your digs on the dribble,” Musselman said. “Then I think the next part of that is how do you get deflections when your man passes.
“I think we’ve always been a pretty good team jumping in passing lanes, but I think we’ve added attacking the dribble a little bit better and trying to attack the pass with deflection. Then…I mean, when you’re long and athletic, that certainly helps.”
That latter part has proven to be pretty tough on opponents.
“I thought we would be ready for this game and be ready to compete with this team, but it’s hard to simulate their length and speed,” Wardle said. “They’re extremely aggressive, a very handsy team. They’re very long and they’ve very fast in the open floor.”
Nick Smith Injury Update
For the second straight game, Arkansas basketball fans found themselves holding their breath because Nick Smith Jr. left the game early.
The freshman phenom checked out at the 17:05 mark of the second half and walked to the locker room with the trainer. He eventually returned the bench a few minutes later, but never went back in the game.
Radio play-by-play man Chuck Barrett reported that he had to get his knee re-taped and Musselman confirmed that in the postgame interview. He said the tape job he got at halftime felt uncomfortable and then they chose not to put him back in. At the time, the Razorbacks were up 14.
“I discussed it quite a bit on bench with Coach Smart, because of his experience, (and) Coach Argenal,” Musselman said. “The three of us talked about it. With the flow and the way the game was going, I just felt like there wasn’t a need to probably put him back in at that juncture.”
Musselman insisted that it wasn’t a serious injury and that he’d be available to play Wednesday against UNC Asheville.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- The win improves Arkansas to 13-10 all-time inside Simmons Bank Arena, which was formerly named Alltel Arena and Verizon Arena.
- This game had an added level of importance to Eric Musselman considering how last year’s game went against Hofstra. He had the players on that team — Davonte Davis and Kamani Johnson, plus walk-ons Cade Arbogast and Lawson Blake — address the new players throughout the week. “Last year quite frankly we stunk,” Musselman said. “That’s why we’ve had different players get up and speak the last two days. The four guys that were here all got the opportunity to speak to the team about what the experience was like postgame last year.”
- As impressive as Walsh’s four steals were, Davonte Davis actually led the team with five. It matched his career high, which he set in last year’s overtime win over No. 1 Auburn. “I thought he was unbelievable,” Musselman said. “Just his effort, his energy and how he attacked passes. You know, five steals is a lot of steals for one player.”
- The second half featured a pair of technical fouls and three flagrant fouls. In addition to Jordan Walsh’s aforementioned taunting technical, Bradley head coach Brian Wardle also got one. The three flagrant were on Walsh, Makhi Mitchell and Bradley’s Ja’Shon Henry. Despite his animated reactions on the sideline, Musselman wasn’t upset with the officiating. “I thought it was a great reffed game, I really did,” Musselman said. “The refs did a phenomenal job.”
Arkansas vs Bradley Highlights
Arkansas vs Bradley Postgame Pressers
Arkansas vs Bradley Box Score
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