By Kevin McPherson
FAYETTEVILLE — Perhaps inspired by Tuesday’s below-freezing temperatures outside Bud Walton Arena, the Arkansas Razorbacks unleashed another stifling defensive performance in holding a good-shooting North Texas squad to a miserably cold effort from the field while grinding to a 66-43 victory on Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena.
Arkansas (2-0) limited North Texas (1-2) to 17-of-51 shooting (33.3%), including only 2-of-17 from 3 for 11.8% — this after holding Rice down in the season-opener to 28.6% field goal shooting, including an abysmal 2-of-25 from 3 for 8.0%.
In keeping both Rice and North Texas to sub-35% field goal shooting and sub-15% 3-point shooting, Arkansas matched what the program last achieved in back-to-back games in 1997, according to Hogstats.com.
The combined 4-of-42 from 3 by the Owls and Mean Green stands as a testament to Arkansas’s stingy early-season perimeter defense.
In two games, Arkansas held each opponent to 43 points. According to Hogstats.com, you have to go back to the 1949-50 season to find the last Razorbacks squad that held each of its first two opponents below 45 points in a game. And the last time Arkansas held two opponents below 50 points each in back-to-back games was 12 years ago (November 2007).
“I thought we played with great defensive enthusiasm tonight,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said. “We’re through two games now and we’ve held our opponents to 4 of 42 from three-ball, so we’ve done a great job of taking away that three-point line thus far in an early two-game season. I think that’s that’s the first time in (12) years we’ve held (back-to-back opponents) under 50 points. So just a phenomenal job from a defensive standpoint.”
“We did a really good job of just taking away their air space, getting our hands in their eyeballs before the catch even on their 3-point shooters. I thought we did a phenomenal job, coming into the game we were certainly concerned with the offensive rebounds of Zachary Simmons, number 24, and his ability inside, but I thought we did a great job on our post-fronts tonight, as well, and had great weakside help. We put pretty good pressure on the passer when they did try to post us up.”
Arkansas was led in scoring once again by 6-5 guards Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones, who each scored 16 points in a game that was dictated by defense.
Joe played 38 minutes and was 5-of-9 shooting (including 4-of-6 from 3) plus 2-of-2 from the free throw line. He also had 3 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists, and 1 block.
Jones, named SEC Player of the Week on Monday following his career-high 32 points in the 91-43 win over Rice on Nov. 5, played 29 minutes and was 3-of-8 from the field (including 1-of-5 from 3) but he was a perfect 9-of-9 from the foul line. He also had 6 rebounds and 2 assists.
“Those guys have great chemistry on the floor,” Musselman said of his star guards. “I know that there was a lot of talk that one guy would have a good game last year and then the other wouldn’t. Since I’ve been here, their chemistry has been incredible. Those two guys like playing with each other. Just really proud that Mason has accepted playing the 4-spot. I think it’s helping him and it’s helping our team too. He’s got a lot of mismatches at that 4-spot.”
“And, we are forcing teams to play smaller, believe it or not, in two games now, teams keep matching down with us which is great.”
Senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr. scored 13 points — including 9 in the first half to lead the Hogs at the break — to go with 3 steals, 2 assists, and 1 rebound in 35 minutes.
Senior forward Adrio Bailey finished with 8 points (on 3-of-4 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, plus 1-of-2 free throws), 5 rebounds, 4 steals, and 1 block in 29 minutes.
Sophomore guard Desi Sills played 33 minutes and had 9 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 block.
“When you have small numbers like we do, defense is going to take you a lot farther than offense is, especially late in the season and legs get tired,” Whitt said. “It is a little harder to hit shots, a little harder to get to the basket, but you can always play hard on defense and you can always be in the right spots.”
As a team, Arkansas was beaten on the boards (37-24) but won the turnover battle (18-10) including a plus-6 margin in giveaways in the second half.
As tough and physical as both teams were defensively, Arkansas cashed in at the free throw line going 20-of-24 for 83.3%, while North Texas managed only 7-of-12 for 58.3%.
“With free throws, there’s these pockets of areas that we knew we had to improve on,” Musselman said. “Free throw shooting being one of them, turnovers being one of them, being a better rebounding team. When we do shoot free throws in practice, I think our guys have done a great job of having total focus and not letting their guard down and guys just talking during free throw shooting. The gym’s been silent when we take free throws and you try to put players in game-like situations even when you’re working on free throws.”
“Certainly, again, it’s early, but I feel like we’ve done a really good job from the charity stripe so far.”
Simmons (6-10, 235) came in as North Texas’s leading scorer, but managed only 6 points although he did grab a game-high 9 rebounds. Forward Deng Geu led the Mean Green with 10 points.
Senior guard DJ Draper came in averaging 10.5 points and was 7-of-10 from 3 on the season, but Arkansas held him without a shot attempt as he fouled out after playing only 12 minutes.
The Mean Green came in shooting 50.5% from the field, but they started the game against the Hogs 0-of-11 with three turnovers as Arkansas jumped out to a 9-0 lead.
Joe’s steal & lefty lay-in gave Arkansas its biggest lead at the time, 28-16, which stood as the score at halftime.
North Texas whittled the Hogs’ advantage down to five, 38-33, midway through the second half, but the Hogs used a 19-3 run to go up 57-36 while putting the game away at the 5:06 mark.
For the game, Arkansas was a respectable 20-of-45 for 44.4% shooting the ball, but a 6-of-22 effort from 3 for 27.3% revealed the Hogs’ own struggles from distance.
After beating North Texas –the Hogs’ second C-USA opponent to start the season — Arkansas will host Montana of the Big Sky Conference on Saturday in a matchup that will be the first of four home games in November that are being billed as the Collegiate Hoops Roadshow event. Tip-off is set for 4 p.m. CT and the game can be seen via live-stream on SEC Plus. Montana has particiapated in two consecutive NCAA tournaments (’17-18 and ’18-19).