Heading into Alabama on Saturday night, Arkansas had lost three SEC games in a row. With an 15-5 overall record, it still projected to make the NCAA Tournament, but it needed to improve its 3-4 SEC mark in a hurry.
So, knocking off a surging Crimson Tide squad ” was kind of a must-win,” Hogs coach Eric Musselman said. “You don’t want to put too much pressure on the team, but they knew based on my body language all week that it was a must-win.”
The Razorbacks knocked off Alabama 82-78 in one of the program’s most impressive road wins in recent years. While beating Indiana in December was overall more impressive, this win stood out because the Hogs’ best shooter, Isaiah Joe, scored zero points as he continues to struggle with a knee injury.
To make up for the 17 points a game Joe usually provides, Mason Jones and Jimmy Whitt rose to the occasion. In leading the Hogs back from an 11-point deficit in the first half, and a 7-point deficit in the second half, they poured in 30 points and 26 points, respectively.
Jones become the first Hog to score at least 30 points in back to back games since Jannero Pargo in January 2002. (Pargo poured in 35 pts. vs. Florida, 33 pts. at Alabama).
“I’m really proud of our team. It was not an easy week. We had to fight through some adversity, but this was a really, really gutty performance by our guys,” Eric Musselman told Hogs radio broadcaster Chuck Barrett after the game.
Jones’ play, which included five rebounds and two steals, impressed Aaron Torres, Fox Sports Radio college basketball insider:
Just a huge win for Arkansas tonight. Coming off a loss, and with Auburn next they could have been in big trouble if they dropped this one. They don’t and pick up a big, resume building win with a win over a good Bama team in Tuscaloosa. Also, Mason Jones is a MONSTER ??— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) February 2, 2020
After the game, the SEC Network analysts asked Jones to talk about his performance. “The way I’ve been playing has been incredible,” Jones said. “I wasn’t doing this last year, but the new system that Coach Muss has brought in, he believed in me and it’s all paying off. I just want to give all the credit to Coach Muss and my teammates, just coming in here and playing hard, just going against adversity.”
Highlights of Mason Jones straight scorching the Tide:
Player of the game material pic.twitter.com/U0LTFOKSB4— Arkansas Razorbacks Basketball (@RazorbackMBB) February 2, 2020
Under Musselman, Arkansas has turned a corner in its ability to win away from Fayetteville. The Razorbacks are 5-3 away from Bud Walton this season. They were a combined 28-39 over the last four seasons under former head coach Mike Anderson.
Jones said the the biggest difference Eric Musselman has created for this team is “just the belief that we can win every game and the way he prepares us is just incredible. He prepares us in an NBA style and we come into every game knowing we got a chance to win. He tells us every game ‘Who’s going to win their match up? Who’s going to win mano a mano? Who’s going to play harder?'”
“And today we played harder and God blessed us with [the win]. So as long as we keep giving credit to God and we keep giving credit to our teammates and the coaching staff and keep pushing ourselves, we’re going in a good direction.”
Arkansas-Alabama box score
While Jones and Whitt are the stars, Musselman told Barrett it’s important to remember all the hustle and little things their teammates did.
“What a fan probably doesn’t know, Chuck, is that Jeantal Cylla came in and he played a minute and three seconds and had two rebounds. Earning your minutes becomes really, really important,” he said.
On Reggie Cheney’s stout performance:
“I thought Reggie was phenomenal. I mean 11 rebounds. He had five offensive and six defensive, and we’ve kinda been waiting on that. That’s a big job inside that we needed somebody to step up and he did that tonight.”
Chuck Barrett: It seems, of your big guys, he’s the one that does the best job of finishing offensively.
Eric Musselman: “He does and really, quite honestly, because of our defensive schemes I thought he did a really good job of switching onto their ball handler when they ran pick and roll.”
“Because we don’t really want a hard show or trap very much.
We’ll do it a little bit to start each game, but we usually morph into switching. And tonight he did a good job not fouling, for the most part, when he did jump out switch. [Though Reggie Cheney did foul on a foul on a three-point shot attempt in the last minute of the game.]”
“We played a really good second half. We played with great pace, scoring 46 points and I’m really proud of the effort in the second half. I thought we just did a phenomenal job of getting defensive stops when we needed to. It’s never easy to win on the road.”
On Arkansas scoring 27 points off turnovers, 14 more than Alabama:
“One of the big keys was how many times could we turn them over? I thought the seven turnovers from [Kira] Lewis, their point guard, was really important and certainly Jalen Harris played a big part in that.”
“They tried to pus in middle pick and roll basically from the nine-minute mark and on and let Lewis either try to get to dribble drive for himself or let him get something, a teammate like an open three.
I thought we did a pretty good job defending the three ball as well.”
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On the next game against No. 17 Auburn (to be ranked higher after beating Kentucky on Saturday) in Fayetteville:
“How about Bud Walton on Tuesday night against a ranked Auburn team, baby? Six o’clock!”
Here’s some insight from Musselman in the following press conference: