FAYETTEVILLE — Although it appeared another comeback win from an 11-point second-half deficit might be on the menu for the Arkansas Razorbacks, No. 10 Kentucky shut down the Hogs’ rally with a 15-0 run shortly after its head coach John Calipari was ejected as the Wildcats pulled away for a 73-66 win Saturday in front of 19,200 fans at Bud Walton Arena.
Kentucky (13-4, 4-1 SEC) has beaten Arkansas (14-3, 3-2 SEC) in eight consecutive meetings spanning the last six seasons. The Hogs lost their first home game of the season.
The ‘Cats grabbed a 38-27 lead early in the second half, and they were up 42-34 when the Hogs — who overcame 11-point second-half deficits on the road to beat both Indiana and Ole Miss in the last three weeks — strung together a 10-2 run to tie the game at 44-all with 8:49 to play.
Thirty seconds later Calipari protested a foul call and was ejected after picking up two technical fouls. Hogs junior guard Mason Jones made 3-of-4 technical-foul free throws as Arkansas grabbed its first lead of the second half, 47-44, at 8:19.
With 7:14 to play and trailing 49-46, Kentucky buried Arkansas with a 15-0 run for a 61-49 lead at the 2:42 mark.
Offensively in that 4:32 span of game time, the ‘Cats scored in transition twice, made six free throws, and hit a dagger triple that pushed their lead back to double-digits. During that same stretch, Kentucky sprang a zone defense that held Arkansas to 0-of-7 shooting.
The Razorbacks fought within 69-64 with 22 seconds remaining, but Kentucky made 4-of-4 free throws from there to ice the win.
“Kentucky is a really good basketball team obviously,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said. “I thought when we got up, (Tyrese) Maxey had two kind of leak-out transition (baskets). We had to gamble where we tried to get a piece of the ball right in front of their bench and he got a layup and then an old-school and-one.
“You play Kentucky and you lose by 20 on the glass basically, you miss front ends of one-and-ones. I thought our free throw shooting really hurt us. Then lack of rebounding as well. from an effort standpoint I thought we played really hard, but that’s a long team and a really good team as well.”
Despite getting beat up on the boards (the Hogs finished minus-18 at 47-29) and having a poor free-throw shooting game (the Hogs came in third in the SEC shooting better than 75% but went 20-of-30 for 66.7%), Arkansas was in position to pull out a win before Kentucky slammed the door with its 15-0 run shortly after Calipari’s ejection.
“I thought the whole momentum changed after (the ejection) in Kentucky’s favor — in every way, shape and form,” Musselman said. “So, yes, we had the momentum during the dead ball, and after that, it completely changed.”
Not only did Arkansas sell out BWA weeks ago for the Hogs-‘Cats matchup, a sizeable throng of students were lined up outside the facility for hours in anticipation of the game. Once everyone was inside, the atmosphere was charged and intense.
“Look, this one hurts,” Musselman said. “We had an incredible environment in the building. We don’t want to let our fans down and it’s hard to create that atmosphere and get that atmosphere back. The locker room’s hurting.”
Kentucky and Arkansas both came in with national top 50 field-goal-percentage defenses, but the agile, athletic, and longer Wildcats fared better by holding Arkansas to 19-of-57 overall shooting (33.3%) while Kentucky managed 24-of-54 (44.4%).
The Hogs made 6-of-10 from three just to stay within striking distance at halftime, 36-27, but a 2-of-18 effort outside the arc in the final 20 minutes was devastating to an offense that lost points-in-the-paint, 32-22.
Arkansas won the turnover battle (16-11), but its advantage in points-off-turnovers was only plus-3 (11-8).
Jones led Arkansas with 19 points (5-of-15 field goals, including 1-of-5 from 3, and 8-of-12 free throws), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, and 4 turnovers before fouling out with 3:28 to play. Jones picked up his third and fourth fouls within a 1:19 span at the midway point of the second half.
Sophomore guard Isaiah Joe finished with 13 points (3-of-11 from 3), 5 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 turnover. He had been a big-production shooter-scorer in second halves of games, but all 7 of his second-half points on Saturday came in the final 2:29 when Kentucky held a three- or four-possession lead.
Coming off a career-high 30 points in the Hogs’ 75-55 win over Vanderbilt on Wednesday, senior guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr., struggled shooting from the field (3-of-9) although he did makes his free throws (8-of-8) to finish with 14 points to go with 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal, and 2 turnovers.
“I missed shots I take every day,” Whitt said. “It happens in the game of basketball. Sometimes you’re hot and you have the hot hand and sometimes you have nights like tonight. Personally I thought we had some pretty good shots on the offensive end.
“I don’t think it was one of our best efficiency nights. Guys including myself missing shots that we normally make but they’re going too be games like that where the ball is just not falling the hole.”
Kentucky was led by junior 6-11 forward Nick Richards, who had 17 points (6-of-8 field goals and 5-of-6 free throws), 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks. His length was effective at both ends of the court.
Sophomore guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley each scored 13 points — their season averages — with Hagans dishing out a game-high 6 assists and Quickley grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds.
Freshman guard Tyrese Maxey had 11 points and 6 rebounds, while 6-7 freshman Keion Brooks, Jr., chipped in 10 points and 7 rebounds.
“I think we’re a good defensive team,” said Kentucky associate head coach Kenny Payne, who guided the Wildcats in the final 8:19 of the game following Calipari’s ejection. “I think we’re athletic. If we can find a way to keep you in front of us, our athleticism comes into play. But at the end of the day, guys, we had 48 rebounds; they had 28. That’s a lot. That’s a lot of rebounding.”
Next up for Arkansas, the Hogs go back on the road for a game against Mississippi State that is set for a 6 p.m. CT tip-off on Wednesday, Jan. 22, then the Hogs return home for the Big 12/SEC Challenge against TCU on Saturday, Jan. 25.