FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas found its point guard Thursday night and not a moment too soon.
In danger of suffering another resume-killing loss, the Razorbacks leaned on Keyon Menifield Jr. in the second half of their 83-73 comeback win over Abilene Christian at Bud Walton Arena.
The Washington transfer had 11 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists in his 28 minutes, but his impact on the game extended beyond the box score.
“He plays hard,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said. “He plays quick, he plays with pace, he plays with energy, he plays with enthusiasm.”
It was just the second game back for Menifield, who was originally expected to redshirt this season only to receive a waiver from the NCAA that made him eligible immediately after the UA’s fall semester.
He got his feet wet with 18 minutes against Lipscomb in North Little Rock last weekend, but still had some rust to knock off against the Wildcats. That was evident in the first half, as he committed a team-high three turnovers and didn’t take a shot in eight minutes.
That changed after halftime. Musselman inserted Menifield into the starting lineup for the second half and he responded by driving to the basket and scoring on Arkansas’ opening possession.
“In the first half, I think I was timid,” Menifield said. “I was just trying to pass and not look to attack. So in the second half, I was just playing my game.”
Menifield was also the key during the Razorbacks’ run to regain the lead in the second half, fully erasing what had been a nine-point deficit. That contributed to him being plus-21 in his 28 minutes.
It was his pull-up jumper around the free throw line — after he forced a backcourt violation — that put Arkansas back on top and then he grabbed a rebound and pushed the ball up the floor to Khalif Battle, who knocked down a 3 that riled up the crowd inside Bud Walton Arena.
“I think he brought us together as a team,” teammate Chandler Lawson said. “I feel like he got it under control and he controlled the pace and put everybody in position to make the right reads that we need.”
Sure, he did all of that against Abilene Christian, but it was the kind of performance Musselman had hoped to get from Menifield when recruiting him out of the transfer portal.
After all, his late-night television habits led to him seeing quite a bit of the 6-foot-1 point guard while he was at Washington.
“it was really random and weird, but I kept watching Washington and I kept waking Danyelle up and said, ‘You’ve got to watch this guy. Like, he’s fun to watch,’” Musselman said. “And then he goes in the portal. We don’t really know any of his inner circle, we don’t know his high school (coach). We don’t know anybody. Probably the most random recruiting ever.”
Atrocious First Half
What Keyon Menifield Jr. provided in the second half was needed for the Razorbacks to rally from a 35-28 halftime deficit.
During a first half in which Eric Musselman later said his team “stunk, stunk and stunk some more,” Arkansas shot just 9 of 24 (37.5%) from the floor and committed 12 turnovers spread across eight of the 11 players who saw the floor.
Quite simply, it was one of the more ugly halves of offense this season.
“As a team, we’ve got to improve in a lot of areas as I’ve stated, and guys need to individually improve,” Musselman said. “We need guys to be able to put the ball on the deck and beat people off the the dribble. Too much standing in the first half.”
The worst part of the disjointed offense were the turnovers, which directly led to 10 points for Abilene Christian.
That was something Musselman was concerned about heading into the game because the Wildcats came into the game averaging 8.2 steals as a team, ranking 76th nationally.
“They’ve got great quickness,” Musselman said. “They’ve got great anticipation. They’re very well-coached defensively to be a disruptive team. We were just too careless. We’ve got to work on our ball-handling.”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the first half ended about as poorly as imaginable.
The Razorbacks actually had a chance to make it a one-possession just before halftime, but Makhi Mitchell missed the second of two free throws that would have made it a 3-point game with five seconds left. Instead, Abilene Christian grabbed the rebound and Kavion McClain knocked down a 3 at the buzzer to make it 35-28.
Mark, Battle Heat Up
With the offense laying an egg in the first half, Eric Musselman was forced to make drastic changes at halftime. He abandoned their original plan and put in an entirely new offensive attack.
“I don’t know how to explain it, but we ran a lot of three guys east-west where we screen from the middle to the wing,” Musselman said. “That guy would curl and then the middle guy would go run into a pick and roll. They struggled with that. Again, that is our Bucks offense. It hasn’t been good for us, but it was good for us tonight in the second half.”
The main beneficiaries of the switch were Arkansas’ two leading scorers — Tramon Mark and Khalif Battle.
That duo combined for 31 points in the second half and actually scored 27 of the Razorbacks’ first 37 points after halftime.
Mark led the way with 25 points — 17 after halftime — on an efficient 9 of 14 shooting, which included making both of his 3-point attempts. He also went 5 of 6 a the charity stripe. The Houston transfer is now averaging a team-high 16.9 points this year.
“Every time he shoots it and releases, you think it is going in because he can rise over defenders and he’s got a great mid-range pull-up game,” Musselman said.
Battle scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half and was also pretty efficient shooting the ball, going 5 of 8 from the floor, 3 of 4 from deep and 5 of 6 from the line.
It was a nice bounce-back game for the Temple transfer, as he was coming off a tough 2-point performance against Lipscomb. He had also been just 3 of 15 from the field over the previous two games.
“I mean, he’s going to shoot,” Musselman said. “He’s going to shoot, which is good. He’s got a green light. Whether I say it’s yellow or red, in his mind he’s got a green light. Sometimes that is a really, really good thing.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
The Razorbacks will get some time off for Christmas before reconvening and getting ready for their final non-conference tuneup on Dec. 30.
It won’t be an easy game, as UNC Wilmington is 9-2 after beating Marshall 78-69 on Thursday. One of those wins was an 80-73 win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena earlier this month. The Seahawks came into the day at No. 127 in the NET, but that could change with the win over Marshall.
Tipoff is scheduled for 4 p.m. CT at Bud Walton Arena and will be televised on SEC Network.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- Despite being limited by foul trouble some in the first half, Little Rock Parkview product Airion Simmons still managed to finish with 7 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists in 23 minutes for Abilene Christian. He shot just 2 of 9 from the floor and missed all four of his 3-point attempts, though.
- He had some good moments in the first half, but overall, Trevon Brazile struggled against Abilene Christian and he ended up playing only 76 seconds after halftime. Musselman didn’t provide much insight when asked in his postgame press conference how to get the big man going: “Just continue to work. Play with confidence. Continue to work.”
- As a team, the Razorbacks went 22 of 28 at the free throw line Thursday night. Interestingly, each of the six misses was by a different player.
- In addition to his game-high 25 points, Tramon Mark grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds to notch his first career double-double. That total included his first two offensive rebounds of the year. “We would probably have a cake for him tomorrow if we actually practiced to celebrate,” Musselman said. “Not just one offensive rebound, but two.”
- Khalif Battle has always been known as an elite scorer, but Musselman was impressed by his performance on the other end of the floor Thursday night. “I thought Battle played his best defensive game of the season, and it wasn’t even close,” Musselman said. “I thought he got in a stance. He worked this week in practice, and it correlated to the game.”
- Despite it being broadcast on SEC Network, the game was called remotely, as play-by-play man Kevin Fitzgerald and analyst Joe Kleine were not actually at Bud Walton Arena.
Arkansas vs Abilene Christian Highlights
Arkansas vs Abilene Christian Box Score
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