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Not even Tuesday’s historically frigid temperatures could cool off red-hot Arkansas.
Ranked for the first time in three years, the No. 24 Razorbacks weathered a late run before a fast-break layup by Davonte Davis with about 3.5 minutes left put them up for good in a 75-64 win over Florida inside Bud Walton Arena.
It is the seventh straight SEC win for Arkansas, matching its seven-game streak in 2015 for its second-longest since joining the conference in 1991-92. (Arkansas won 11 straight to end the 1994 season.) The victory also moved the Razorbacks a half-game ahead of LSU for second place in the conference at 17-5 overall and 9-4 in SEC play.
“I think the guys right now, they understand,” head coach Eric Musselman said. “For having four freshmen on your roster and so many new faces, I think this group understood going into this game, like, we didn’t want to be ranked and then lose the next game.”
Although Arkansas led by as many as 15 points in the second half, Florida stayed in it and actually briefly took a 62-61 lead with 4:40 remaining thanks to back-to-back buckets by Tyree Appleby, the Jacksonville, Ark., native.
The Gators had two opportunities to add to their one-point lead, but missed a three-pointer and then turned the ball over. The second of those plays led to the aforementioned layup in transition by Davis, who scored a team-high 16 points.
“You just kind of hold your breath when Devo’s got the ball,” Musselman said with a smile. “He just kind of figures out a way to slither to the rim and get by people… I don’t know what he’s going to do in there, but he’s going to do something.”
As electrifying as that play was, what won the game for Arkansas was its defense.
After losing the lead, the Razorbacks ended the game on a 14-2 run in which they forced four turnovers and held Florida to 0 of 6 shooting. The Gators’ only points in the final four minutes came at the free throw line.
“I think the big key was when that thing was 61-62, we did a really good job of locking in defensively, being a little bit more disciplined, being solid,” Musselman said. “Florida can really, really score the basketball.”
While defense was critical down the stretch, Arkansas opened the game on fire offensively.
Temperatures dipping to negative-20 degrees earlier in the day didn’t seem to effect the Razorbacks, who had 10 points on the board before the first media timeout – their most since the Vanderbilt game on Jan. 23 – and ended up making 8 of their first 12 shots.
The quicker start was simply the result of addressing the issue in practice, as Musselman said the players recognized they “stunk starting some of the games.” It also helped that the staff put in two new plays for the game.
“I thought (the new plays) got us some really good looks throughout the course of the game and it’s our job as a staff just to try to put together a plan for them to get open looks,” Musselman said. “If they’re not getting open looks, then it’s on our coaching staff to come up with a new wrinkle that maybe the opposition hasn’t seen and then it’s up to the guys to read it.”
It was still close throughout the first five minutes of the game, though, with Colin Castleton making a layup to pull Florida within 14-12 at the 14:28 mark.
That started a 10-minute stretch during which the Gators went 1 of 15 and scored only five points, as Appleby knocked down a three-pointer and Anthony Duruji made a pair of free throws.
The Razorbacks went cold, too, missing 9 of 10 shots at one point, but they eventually heated back up and pushed their lead to 30-17 with five minutes left in the half on a bucket by Justin Smith in the paint.
Coming off a 19-point performance in the upset win at Missouri, Smith was a force for Arkansas again Tuesday night. He finished with 15 points on 7 of 9 shooting, six rebounds, four assists, five steals and two blocks. The last SEC player to hit each of those marks in a game was LSU’s Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
“He’s playing like a next-level player the last two games on both sides of the basketball,” Musselman said. “He’s playing off the charts right now. When he plays with such incredible effort and energy, I mean there’s not many guys who have his speed, quickness and strength all in combination.”
Florida seemed to settle down after a timeout and the teams exchanged blows over the final four minutes of the half, the last of which was an alley-oop from Smith to Connor Vanover just before the buzzer to give Arkansas a 40-30 halftime lead.
It looked like the Razorbacks might run away with it when they scored the first five points of the second half. They kept the ball on their half of the floor for nearly two minutes, forcing a pair of turnovers and grabbing six offensive rebounds.
Yet another timeout worked out perfectly for the Gators, though, as they answered with a quick 9-0 run to get back in it.
“When they made the run, for about a two and a half to three-minute stretch we just didn’t defend at an elite level,” Musselman said. “We defended at a decent level, which you can’t do against Florida. You have to defend at an elite level and I thought we got back to doing that after two or three minutes.”
Arkansas ended that run with the help of two of its freshmen. Davis made a floater to stop the bleeding and then Jaylin Williams threw down an emphatic putback dunk.
Davis – a Jacksonville native like Appleby for Florida – led the team in scoring by shooting 7 of 14 from the floor and a perfect 4 of 4 from the charity stripe. He also added five rebounds, three assists and a steal in his fourth straight start.
“He keeps getting better and better every game,” Musselman said. “His shot selection is good. He’s not turning the ball over. The guys love playing with him. Defensively, he’s a menace. He’s all over the place. He gets loose balls. He rebounds his position.”
The dunk accounted for half of Williams’ points, but it was just one of his game-high 10 rebounds. It’s the third time he’s reached double-digit boards, as he also had 10 against Mississippi Valley State and LSU.
“He’s an incredible aggressive defensive rebounder, which is the key to any defensive team, is how well they can defensive rebound,” Musselman said. “The big thing is he’s just physical. He enjoys getting in there and banging around. Some guys don’t like contact. He seeks contact.”
However, Florida still wouldn’t go away. It made seven straight shots cut the Razorbacks’ lead to 57-54 and eventually took the lead for the first time all night on a floater by Appleby.
One reason the Gators were able to stay within striking distance was because Jalen Tate picked up two quick fouls early in the second half and had to sit on the bench for more than six minutes with three fouls.
“I think the biggest thing is we all saw when he was out of the game how much we missed him,” Musselman said. “We missed him tremendously when he was out for a short stretch because he picked up fouls and I wanted to have him available down the stretch.”
Having Tate on the floor in the final minutes proved to be big, as he knocked down a mid-range jumper to extend Arkansas’ lead to three with 2:16 remaining. It was part of a 14-point outing for the graduate transfer from Northern Kentucky.
Florida never got closer than that. In addition to their solid defense, the Razorbacks also made 8 of 10 free throws in the final 62 seconds to ice the victory.
Appleby led the Gators with 16 points on 6 of 14 shooting in his return to his home state, but he committed seven turnovers, as well.
After struggling to defend the three against two of the worst shooting teams in the country its last two games, Arkansas held Florida – the SEC’s top three-point shooting team – to just 4 of 21 (19.0 percent) from beyond the arc.
Tre Mann and Noah Locke came into the game shooting a combined 41.6 percent from deep and went 1 of 6 and 1 of 5, respectively, while Appleby – a 36.6 percent three-point shooter – went 1 of 7.
“After the last two games’ 3-point shooting, we made a little adjustment, we had some defensive drills to try to contest the three,” Musselman said. “The game plan, it really wasn’t on the guys at Missouri or at Kentucky, the 3-point shooting that we gave up. Tonight was going to be on them if they gave up the three.”
For Arkansas, it was the third straight game – and fourth during its current SEC winning streak – it won in the closing minutes, while also being its sixth conference win by double figures.
“I certainly think it helps us going forward,” Musselman said. “So many games in this conference comes down to the last three minutes of the game. It’s important to execute on both sides of the basketball.”
The Razorbacks will hit the road to try to extend their SEC winning streak to seven games, traveling to Texas A&M on Saturday. Tip off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. CT and the game will be televised on the SEC Network.
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