The unlikeliest of players was the hero for Arkansas basketball in its dramatic comeback win over No. 17 San Diego State on Wednesday.
After not coming off the bench in the No. 9 Razorbacks’ first two games at the Maui Invitational, Kamani Johnson played a lot of minutes in the second half and it was his last-second putback that forced overtime and helped them pull out a 78-74 win over the Aztecs in Hawaii.
Trailing by two in the closing seconds, freshman Anthony Black drove the middle of the lane and threw up a floater. It bounced off the back iron and, in between three San Diego State players, Johnson went up, grabbed the offensive rebound and put it back up as he fell back to the ground.
It went through the hoop as the buzzer sounded to tie the game at 67-67.
“Coach (Eric Musselman) told me I’m one of the best offensive rebounders in the nation, so I told the guys, ‘Whatever you do, just make sure there’s a little bit of time left on the clock before you shoot just so I can get an offensive rebound,’” Johnson said on the Razorback Sports Network. “They attacked it and they didn’t put a body out on me, but I might have cleared some space out, too.”
That play was part of an incredible 7-point, 7-rebound, 2-steal effort by Johnson, who also had another critical stick-back in the final two minutes of overtime to extend Arkansas’ lead to three and also grabbed the rebound on San Diego State’s last possession with a chance to tie it up.
Johnson was immediately fouled and, despite being just 1 for 5 at the charity stripe this season up to that point, calmly knocked down both free throws to essentially seal the victory.
Coming into Wednesday’s game, he had played a grand total of 22 minutes and all those came in the three games at Bud Walton Arena before heading to Hawaii. In that action, Johnson had just 2 points, 5 rebounds and 2 steals. However, assistant coaches Keith Smart and Ronnie Brewer had been preaching to him to stay ready and in the moment — advice he took to heart.
“I feel like our team was a little bit down from yesterday,” Johnson said. “We feel like we should have won the game. But we got down by 10 and Coach put me in. I was ready for the moment and I feel like I’m one of the leaders on this team, so I had to show them how to fight.”
It wasn’t until the 14:25 mark of the second half that head coach Eric Musselman finally made that move. He had just called a rare timeout after a quick 8-0 spurt by the Aztecs pushed their lead to 45-34.
Johnson didn’t come out of the game until the final 30 seconds of the half when the Razorbacks started making offensive-defensive substitutions. He also played all five minutes in overtime and was plus-14 in his 19 minutes.
“We felt like somebody off the bench that maybe had fresh legs was going to contribute,” Musselman said. “We kind of searched around that first half, couldn’t really find anything, and then the final 20 minutes that Kamani played was awesome.”
During his postgame interview with Chuck Barrett on the Razorback Sports Network radio broadcast, Musselman said Johnson’s impact extended beyond the box score, as well.
“Well, he plays really hard, and he always does that,” Musselman said. “I think the thing that when we go back and watch the tape, he did a really good job in help defense. I thought our help defense kind of changed when he came in the game.”
Coming on the big stage that the Maui Invitational provides and in a top-25 matchup with March-like intensity, the performance was very special to Johnson. He is one of only two returning scholarship players from last season despite plenty of speculation that he would transfer.
On top of that, Johnson has seemingly accepted his role of playing spot-minutes, doing it all with a smile on his face and with enthusiasm. That has earned him a lot of praise from Musselman and his teammates.
“I wanted to stay because I think we have enough talent to compete for a national championship,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the reasons why I came back, to be a leader and lead these guys to try to go compete for a national championship. That’s why I stayed and definitely for moments like this.”
Those listening to the radio broadcast of the game likely heard Chuck Barrett describe a minor scuffle that broke out in the postgame handshake line.
“There was just an Aztec fan that came down and said some things,” Musselman said when asked about it during the postgame press conference. “There was words exchanged.”
Eventually, more details and even some video of the incident surfaced on social media. It seems as though it wasn’t very serious, according to a statement by the Maui Invitational:
Wild Comeback for Arkansas Basketball
Very similar to the Creighton game the night before, Arkansas found itself in a double-digit deficit late in the first half. It trailed by as many as 13 before cutting it to nine just before halftime on a Davonte Davis mid-range jumper.
In the second half, though, every time the Razorbacks battled back within three points, San Diego State answered. The third time that happened, it came on a dunk at the shot clock buzzer when it seemed like it might expire before it could get a shot off.
Even though it felt like it might not be Arkansas’ night, it refused to die and — after a 3-pointer put the Aztecs up by 8 — the Razorbacks went on an 8-0 run to tie it up with 3:37. Even then, the last two points came on 1-for-2 trips to the free throw line, so they still left points out there. However, there were positive vibes amongst the team the entire time.
“In the huddles, from about the 3-minute mark on, it was a team that felt connected,” Musselman said. “It was a team that felt like they could really fight through the fatigue and adversity. Last night, that’s as emotional of a game as I’ve ever been a part of, to be honest with you.”
It was a two-point margin when Arkansas called a timeout with 44 seconds remaining in the game and 14 seconds left on the shot clock. The play that followed was unsuccessful and resulted in Ricky Council IV attempting a wild reverse layup that was blocked out of bounds as the shot clock expired for a turnover.
A pair of free throws by Adam Seiko with 17 seconds left appeared to seal the victory for San Diego State, but Lamont Butler inexplicably fouled Anthony Black four seconds later. Black knocked down both free throws to once again make it a two-point game.
On the ensuing in-bounds play, San Diego State got the ball to Butler along the sideline. Instead of immediately fouling, Trevon Brazile put pressure on him and eventually knocked the ball loose. He jumped on it before it went out of bounds and immediately called timeout to give Arkansas another chance to tie it up with 7.5 seconds left.
“I didn’t know that the guy was going to give it up that easy,” Brazile said. “He’s a senior guard. Those guys are old. He lost the ball, dove on it, timeout as soon as I got it. … I’m a little surprised he didn’t call timeout. He was in a bad situation. He was fumbling the ball. I’m surprised his coach didn’t call a timeout.”
San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher said he was comfortable with where Butler caught the ball and admitted he probably should have called a timeout, but ultimately he had a plan in that he trusted his veteran guard to execute without turning it over.
“He’s got options to pass the ball — he’s got a target diagonally and…the in-bounder coming back in,” Dutcher said. “He obviously thought he could make that sideline pass and had it deflected, so credit to Arkansas, that length and athleticism paid off for them.”
That set the stage for Kamani Johnson’s heroics at the end of regulation and in overtime, as Arkansas came away with a win that Musselman said he believes will build confidence in the team moving forward.
“It just shows how tough of a team we are,” Johnson said. “That’s an older team, so Coach said it’s going to be just like a game like Creighton, so we prepared for it, we got down, but that right there just showed me our young guys ain’t going to quit. Our whole team’s not going to quit. That’s going to help us going into March, for sure.”
Foul Trouble Illustrates Importance of Anthony Black
Considering he already had two points just five seconds into the game, it appeared that Anthony Black would pick right up where he left off.
Even mistakes were quickly erased early on, as evidenced by one sequence in which the freshman phenom threw the ball away to start what should have been a fast break, only for him to hustle back, go vertical and force a miss at the rim before grabbing the rebound.
Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, Black picked up his second foul at the 10:01 mark of the second half and went to the bench. As soon as he came off the floor, the offense stalled. During the 3.5 minutes he was out, San Diego State went on an 8-0 run and Arkansas went 0 of 5 from the floor with two turnovers.
With the Aztecs in the midst of a 17-1 run, Musselman reinserted Black and he promptly got to the free throw line, made a great pass to Makhi Mitchell that led to a pair of free throws and got to the rim for a layup. The latter of those plays snapped a nearly seven-minute stretch without a field goal for Arkansas.
In just 14 minutes, Black had 11 of the Razorbacks 26 first-half points. He cooled down considerably after halftime, missing all six of his shots from the field, but did add four free throws to give him 15 points. He also finished plus-12, which was second only to Kamani Johnson.
Over the three games at the Maui Invitational, the former five-star recruit averaged 22.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.7 steals in 37.3 minutes.
Ricky Council IV Flips a Switch
For a good chunk of the game, Ricky Council IV looked worse than he ever has in an Arkansas basketball uniform.
A day after playing all 40 minutes in a highly competitive loss to Creighton, it seemed like the Wichita State transfer had dead legs. He air balled multiple shots and was leaving almost everything short as he missed his first seven shots. There was even a fast break opportunity when Council caught the ball under the basket and tried to lay it in instead of dunking it like usual. That was one of his seven straight misses.
“I was close to taking him out and trying to get him a rest, but he felt like he was going to be able to (get it going),” Musselman said. “He said, ‘Just give me another opportunity, Coach. I’m still here. My legs are okay.’”
It wasn’t until the 14:03 mark in the second half that he finally got a tough layup to fall. He finished the old-fashioned 3-point play with a free throw, seemingly flipping a switch that made him go from awful to amazing.
From that point on, Council made 6 of 12 shots and dished three of his team-high four assists — although it’s worth noting that he missed a potential go-ahead dunk with 2:53 left. He finished with 19 points in 41 minutes.
Another Second-Half Surge by Trevon Brazile
For the second straight game, Trevon Brazile followed a quiet first half with a monster second half that proved to be critical for the Razorbacks.
Just like he did against Creighton, the Missouri transfer had just two points before halftime Wednesday night. He was a different player after that, pouring in 18 points on 5 of 9 shooting — including 3 of 5 from beyond the arc — and 5 of 6 shooting from the free throw line in the second half and overtime.
“The main thing I was just trying to be a leader on the court,” Brazile said. “I know my teammates needed me. So just playing hard, keeping us together, had a good come out.”
That came after a 15-point outburst that also included three 3-pointers in the second half against the Bluejays.
The Better Mitchell?
In the Razorbacks’ first three games of the season, there was very little debate about who the better Mitchell twin was. Makhi was in the starting lineup and had some good moments at Bud Walton Arena, while Makhel didn’t even play in the opener and got only limited minutes the next two games.
After the Maui Invitational, though, a case could be made for Makhel. He came off the bench, but actually played more minutes (41) than his brother (37), who started every game.
Makhel was also far more productive, scoring 22 points on 9 of 11 shooting and notching 12 rebounds, 6 blocks, 3 assists, 1 steal and only 1 turnover. Makhi finished the three-game tournament with 9 points on 3 of 5 shooting, 10 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block, 1 assist and 4 turnovers.
Up Next: Troy
The Razorbacks won’t have to wait too long before getting back on the court next week, as they’re scheduled to host Troy on Monday. Tipoff inside Bud Walton Arena is scheduled for 7 p.m. CT and the game will be televised on the SEC Network.
In their last time out, the Trojans crushed Southern-New Orleans, an NAIA school, 118-61 on Tuesday to improve to 6-1. That game was highlighted by a monster performance from Nelson Phillips, who tied the NCAA single-game record with 13 steals. He flirted with a quadruple-double, as he also notched 22 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- Arkansas freshman Nick Smith Jr., the No. 1 player in the 2022 class according to 247Sports, was held out for the sixth straight game. He has yet to make his collegiate debut.
- Davonte Davis started and played 17 minutes in the first half, but did not play at all after halftime. No reason was given by Musselman, but he was on the bench.
- As the Razorbacks searched for solutions to their early struggles, freshman Barry Dunning Jr. got some extended minutes. He played a few minutes in each half and finished with 1 steal and 1 turnover in just under 8 minutes of action. “I thought Barry, he came in and he held the fort,” Musselman said. “That was good for him to get an opportunity to play in a game in this type of atmosphere. This is a tough, tough atmosphere.”
- Both teams appeared to have dead legs in their third game in as many days when it came to shooting. They were a combined 5 of 35 (14.3%) from beyond the arc.
- San Diego State was called for only three more fouls than Arkansas, but the Razorbacks attempted 15 more free throws. They shot 27 of 38 (71.1%) from the charity stripe, compared to 18 of 23 (78.3%) by the Aztecs.
- This was the eighth overtime game of the Musselman era at Arkansas. After going 1-3 in overtime games in his first season, the Razorbacks have now won four straight since, including three against top-20 opponents.
Arkansas vs San Diego State Postgame Pressers
Arkansas vs San Diego State Highlights
Arkansas vs San Diego State Box Score
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