FAYETTEVILLE — When he walked across the court for his customary post-win selfie with the Arkansas basketball student section Wednesday night, Eric Musselman didn’t appear as his typical fired-up self.
The Razorbacks’ head man certainly didn’t look like a coach whose team had just overcome a 17-point deficit to knock off a red-hot ranked opponent like his squad did to No. 20 Missouri, winning 74-68 inside Bud Walton Arena for its first SEC victory of the season.
Rather than his usual fiery self, Musselman appeared more relieved than anything — a feeling that made a lot of sense based on what he admitted to reporters afterward.
“I told the team it’s a must-win,” Musselman said. “I don’t like to tell people that, but quite frankly, it was a must-win tonight for us. Maybe that had an effect of how we played the first half, because I’ve never told a team (that) this early in the year.”
With a road game against No. 22 Auburn and home game against No. 7 Alabama looming — and a loss at LSU already in the books — an 0-4 start to conference play was very much on the table for the Razorbacks, adding to the importance of protecting their home court.
Whether or not that mindset played a role in how the game started may never be known for sure, but Arkansas definitely didn’t want to begin its SEC home opener the way it did.
Missouri buried a 3-pointer on its first possession and then used an 18-3 run to take a commanding 17-point lead midway through the first half. The Razorbacks scored just those three points over a seven-minute stretch in which they made only 1 of 8 shots and turned it over six times.
As jarring as the 25-8 score was, though, Arkansas’ players never wavered because they knew it was coming based on how the Tigers opened up their last two games, both of which ended up being double-digit victories over ranked Illinois and Kentucky teams.
“We knew they were a team that comes out and punches teams in the mouth real early,” freshman Joseph Pinion said. “We had to be prepared for that. I feel like we were. We didn’t really show it, but I feel like we were pretty prepared for it, like once they get their hits over, it’s our time to come right back at them.”
Sure enough, the Razorbacks scored the final eight points of the first half to cut the deficit to seven and then carried that momentum into the second half. It was a reverse layup by Davonte Davis that gave Arkansas its first lead of the night with 14:23 remaining.
Missouri did manage to tie it up a few minutes later, but that lasted all of 15 seconds before Ricky Council IV knocked down a 3-pointer to put the Razorbacks on top for good.
“I think that end of half run that they made ignited them a little bit, but also their great defense that they played to start the second half,” Missouri head coach Dennis Gates said. “They played unbelievable defense and we have got to credit that.”
Doing it for Brazile
Had it not been for the torn ACL he suffered nine games into the season, Trevon Brazile squaring off against his former team would have been a major storyline heading into Wednesday’s game.
Instead, he watched from the sideline as his teammates made a statement on his behalf, winning the top-20 showdown despite the large hole early. Ricky Council IV said there was “no doubt” that Arkansas had added motivation for the game because of Brazile.
“We’ve been talking about it all year,” Council said. “For TB, his old school, I know people were saying whatever about him and maybe in a negative way, so we just had to do it for him, for sure.”
When the victory became apparent, Brazile took the opportunity to throw shade on Missouri with a tweet he shared with a couple seconds still on the clock:
Tale of Two Halves (Again)
While the Razorbacks have been relatively consistent on the defensive end of the floor, they have looked like an entirely different team on offense after halftime in each of their first two SEC games.
In the first half of last week’s loss at LSU and Wednesday’s win over Missouri, Arkansas scored a combined 46 points while shooting 31.1% from the floor, 8% from beyond the arc and 46.2% from the free throw line.
Those percentages have increased to 53.4% on field goals, 38.1% on 3-point attempts and 75% at the charity stripe in the second half of those games, resulting in 85 combined points.
It wasn’t enough to pull off a road win last week, but it did help Arkansas win its eighth straight home game in which it trailed at halftime — its longest such streak since at least 1945, according to HogStats.
The win also improved Musselman to 18-27 at Arkansas in games he trailed at halftime. That .413 winning percentage is better than each of the Razorbacks’ last five head coaches, including Nolan Richardson and Eddie Sutton.
The key to Wednesday’s comeback was yet another halftime adjustment, as Musselman said he abandoned their zone offense. Instead, they used their open offense — which he described as a “five-man, motion-type offense that we run against man-to-man when our plays break down” — and utilized more middle pick-and-rolls.
To Arkansas’ credit, despite its youth with only two returning players from last year’s team and being down two of its best players, it implemented those adjustments almost flawlessly.
“It’s all coaches’ jobs, whether it’s football or basketball, you have to try and make an adjustment in the second half,” Musselman said. “Being able to adjust on the fly helped us tonight.
“You do worry about a young team being able to do that, but Anthony (Black) is so smart and Devo (Davis) has been around and Kamani (Johnson). Those three guys really do a good job of, ‘Hey, this is what we’re supposed to do. Now we have to go do it.'”
The Joseph Pinion Game
Many Arkansas basketball fans will likely remember this win as the Joseph Pinion game.
A lightly used freshman, the Morrilton native went off for 13 points and made 3 of 6 attempts from beyond the arc in a career-high 27 minutes against the Tigers.
It was a much-needed performance for the Razorbacks because Missouri used a zone that left them befuddled. For much of the first half, Arkansas just passed the ball around the perimeter and didn’t get many good looks. At one point, it even committed a shot clock violation without even trying to get a shot off.
Luckily for them, the Razorbacks had Pinion sitting on the bench and ready to save the day. He checked in midway through the first half and then played the next 27 minutes with no break.
“Whenever I hit my first 3, I felt like I might have to play a little bit tonight,” Pinion said. “Our shots weren’t falling in the first half, but I’m glad that I was able to hit some 3s and help us.”
The most Pinion had played before Wednesday was against UNC Asheville two weeks earlier, when he logged 19 minutes. He averaged just 2.9 minutes in his other appearances and also had three games in which he never got on the court.
Despite that lack of minutes, Eric Musselman said he thought this might be a game Pinion played a lot because he anticipated Missouri playing zone and felt like the deep corner — where he ended up making a couple of his 3s — would be a “sweet spot” worth exploiting.
“It’s not just getting to the corner, but we call it the extreme corner, and then you’ve got to have discipline to stay there if you’re not getting the ball,” Musselman said. “That’s why even when Joseph did not score tonight, I thought he flattened things out for us from a spacing standpoint. If you don’t have good spacing against Missouri, you’re not going to give yourself a chance to win.”
The other thing working in Pinion’s favor is the fact that he’s played solid defense of late. Although the Tigers blew by him once, he otherwise kept them in front of him and even generated a steal on a hustle play that led to a dunk.
“(Missouri is) a team that will try to find a matchup they like and isolate you,” Musselman said. “I thought he did a really good job defensively. Probably the most surprising thing in Joseph’s play when he’s gotten minutes is he’s done a pretty good job of defending guys.”
Pinion played so well in the first half that Musselman actually inserted him into the starting unit to begin the second half, replacing Ricky Council IV.
It was a move he made without discussing it with anyone else because he said it was an easy decision. Council had struggled in the first half, posting a minus-18 in 16 minutes, while Pinion was plus-3 in 11 minutes.
Given an opportunity, Pinion made the most of it and turned in his best performance yet in an Arkansas basketball uniform — impressing his teammates along the way.
“I knew he had it the whole year,” Council said. “He’s our best shooter, obviously, as you can see. … We’re going to need that down the stretch. He hit some really big threes. It got too loud and I had to cover my ears.”
The decision to bench Ricky Council IV in favor of Joseph Pinion to start the second half proved to benefit both players involved in the switch.
When he finally checked back in, nearly five minutes after halftime, the Wichita State transfer needed only eight seconds to finish a fast break with a dunk. That was the start of a 21-point second-half outburst after he scored only 4 in the first half on 1 of 6 shooting.
It was a performance Arkansas basketball fans have become accustomed to, as Council typically gets stronger after halftime. In fact, he entered the game averaging 7.5 points in the first half of games and 10.0 points in second halves.
Council said the time on the bench Wednesday didn’t necessarily motivate him to play better, as he maintained a good attitude, but it was reminiscent of his two years at Wichita State, where he actually earned Sixth Man of the Year honors in the AAC last season.
“It just seemed more open in the second half,” Council said. “I was on the bench and I got to watch my teammates play and I feel like that’s really what helped me throughout my career. I got to see people first and then go out there and attack.”
Considering he also shot poorly at LSU last week, Council could have easily pouted and hung his head about getting benched, but he instead became “vital” to the Razorbacks’ offensive attack in the second half.
“I told him in the locker room, really proud of not starting and then when he got inserted into the game not letting it discombobulate his brain or his confidence, because he looked like a guy that was pretty confident regardless of what I did,” Musselman said.
When he went to the locker room, Council was just 6 of 25 (24%) from the floor in his first three halves of SEC play. In the second half Wednesday, he shot 5 of 9.
“Teammates were also in my ear (telling me), ‘Keep being aggressive, attack the rim,’” Council said. “Good things happened when I did that. I was getting to the free throw line.”
The latter part of that, getting to the free throw line, is what helped the Razorbacks ice the victory. He was 10 of 11 from the charity stripe in the second half, including 5 of 6 in the final 25 seconds, when the game was still hanging in the balance.
Council is now 61 of 77 (79.2%) from the line this season, with 20 more attempts than anyone else on the team.
“We’ve felt since we’ve all gotten together and we do our little perfect free throw (drill) at the end of practice, he’s one of the guys that’s as good as anybody on our team,” Musselman said. “He’s shot technicals for us when we’ve been in that situation. So his drawing fouls and then his converting — we need that from an offensive standpoint, especially when we struggle.”
Even with a reputation for being someone who attacks the rim and gets dunks or free throws, Council’s biggest shot Wednesday was his go-ahead 3-pointer that broke a tie and put the Razorbacks up for good with 10:45 remaining.
“The hardest thing in basketball is when the play breaks down, do you have enough players that can create your own shot?” Musselman said. “And Ricky is one guy in particular that does a great job of creating his own shot.”
Defending the Perimeter
One of the major keys for Arkansas going into Wednesday’s game was slowing down or limiting Missouri’s perimeter shooting.
The Tigers were shooting 37.1% from beyond the arc, which ranked second in the SEC, and averaging 10 made 3-pointers, which was tied for 12th nationally.
That didn’t even really tell the full story, either, as they made 47.1% of their attempts over the previous three games and their top five shooters — from a volume standpoint — were shooting a combined 40.7% on the season.
It was going to be an intriguing matchup to watch because Arkansas had been one of the top teams in the country defending the 3.
Early on, it seemed like Missouri had the upper hand in that matchup. The Tigers knocked down two in the game’s first four minutes and started 3 of 5 from deep. However, they made only 3 of their final 14 attempts and ended up shooting only 31.6% from 3-point range.
The aforementioned top shooters for Missouri went a combined 3 of 10: D’Moi Hodge (0 of 2), Kobe Brown (0 of 0), Noah Carter (0 of 1), DeAndre Gholston (1 of 3) and Nick Honor (2 of 4)
“To start the game off, I made a decision that we were going to have a goalie, and their first basket was on me,” Musselman said. “We felt like (Ronnie) DeGray was a guy that the more shot attempts he would take, the less Brown and Hodge would take, quite frankly. He hit a three. That’s on me. There was another three hit off of a guy that we kind of sagging off.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
Things don’t get much easier for the Razorbacks, as they hit the road for a top-25 matchup at Auburn on Saturday. The Tigers are ranked No. 22 in this week’s AP Poll and enter the game with an 11-3 record.
That mark includes a 76-64 loss to Georgia on the road Wednesday night, a game in which it led for just 14 seconds. However, Auburn does enter Saturday’s game riding a 26-game home winning streak.
Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. CT and the game will be televised nationally on the SEC Network.
In their last meeting, Arkansas knocked off No. 1 Auburn 80-76 in overtime and the record-breaking crowd of 20,327 fans stormed the court to celebrate just the second win over the AP No. 1 team in program history.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- With the win, Arkansas improved to 7-4 in ranked matchups under Eric Musselman. That includes a 4-0 mark inside Bud Walton Arena, which had gone 23 years without hosting such a game before the showdown with Alabama on Feb. 24, 2021.
- For the eighth time in 10 games, Makhi Mitchell scored the first points of the game for Arkansas. Despite being limited to 15 minutes because of foul trouble, he still flirted with a double-double, finishing with 8 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks.
- After dropping 31 and 30 points in Missouri’s wins over Illinois and Kentucky, respectively, forward Kobe Brown managed just 11 points on 3 of 7 shooting against the Razorbacks. He had knocked down 7 of 12 attempts from beyond the arc in the two previous games, but didn’t take a single 3-pointer Wednesday. “They did a great job,” Missouri head coach Dennis Gates said. “They had about four of five jump ball situations that they were able to force him into physically. They were physical down in the paint, but this is the SEC and what this league is about.”
- The Razorbacks dominated the glass against Missouri, out-rebounding the Tigers 40-23. They were particularly dominant on the offensive glass, grabbing 15 offensive rebounds compared to 14 defensive rebounds by Missouri. That led to Arkansas winning the second-chance points battle 17-8.
- Star freshman Nick Smith Jr. remains out indefinitely for “right knee management,” but unlike the other games he’s missed this season, he was not on the bench with the team. According to a UA spokesperson, Smith is seeing a specialist.
- Former Butler and Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, who is now the president of basketball operations for the Celtics, was in attendance for Wednesday’s game.
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