FAYETTEVILLE - Grambling State did a much better job slowing down Arkansas sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke in this season's opener than did fellow SWAC member Alcorn State last November.
Clarke "only" had 20 points - 17 in the first half - while an inspirational Delvon Johnson blocked 5 shots and joined five other players scoring 7 points each as the Razorbacks won their 16th straight season opener by dusting the Tigers, 75-52.
An announced crowd of 6,404 fans watched the season opener at Bud Walton Arena.
"I felt in the first half we had pretty good intensity and effort and moved around pretty well," Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey said. "I thought Rotnei got us going with some of the shots he made and we had some beautiful passing and we were able to create some defense and get out with some transition baskets. I think we were 6 of 10 on the break in the first half and it is always good to get some easy baskets."
Arkansas jumped to a 15-3 advantage and led 42-22 at halftime while playing a dozen players before intermission, but then let off the gas in a second half that didn't please the coach.
Pelphrey couldn't wait to talk about the inspiration shown by Johnson, a 6-9 senior center who also had 6 rebounds, after he had suffered an injury late in practice on Wednesday and appeared doubtful to play.
Johnson (6 rebounds) literally spent the night at Bud Walton Arena with trainer Dave England rehabbing an ankle injury suffered late in practice on Wednesday.
That came a day after redshirt junior forward Michael Sanchez had broken a bone in his foot the night before in practice. That injury means he will miss the first six weeks of the season.
"Delvon Johnson got hurt the other day with two minutes to go in practice and had to be carried off the floor," Pelphrey said. "This is something I really like about this basketball team - their character and their make-up and who they are.
"That young man went and got an X-ray and he was fine and then he literally stayed here all night," Pelphrey added. "When I tell you that he and Dave stayed here all night - they were here all night. They didn't leave at midnight. They stayed all night. They slept here and every two hours Dave got up and treated that kid - who had to be carried off the floor - and we didn't even know if he would play today. He went through shoot around. That is very inspiring and I have a tremendous amount of respect for that. I don't know that we could have performed as well in this game without him.
"It was a tough night last night for the old ball coach when I went to sleep because I didn't know who I was going to play at the five - at least at the five very long. I wasn't sure Delvon was going to be able to play and stuff like that, well, people ask me all the time how I feel about this guys - I like these guys. That is pretty cool for a kid to want to play that bad and for a guy to stay here and treat him like that, that is a special feat."
Clarke, the all-time leading scorer in Oklahoma prep history, had a career-high 51 points in the 2009-2010 season opener in a 130-68 thrashing game of the Braves.
He was 5-for-10 on Thursday night - all from 3-point range - and also 5-of-5 from the free throw line in a game that is part of a four-game Razorback Showcase to start the season.
"When he makes five, that doesn't really surprise me," Pelphrey said. "You guys won't write, wow, he had an unbelieveable night, Rotnei Clarke made five. That's a ridiculous night for a lot of people. For him to go 5 of 10, we probably all kind of take that for granted a little bit.
"I wish he could have got 20 shots off and the game may have been different if he had. But the first half, those guys did a really good job of moving the ball around, passing it and they found him."
In addition to not going for 51 points, Clarke didn't have to play 35 minutes as he did in last season's game when Arkansas had only 6 available scholarship players.
"It is a lot different," Clarke said. "We have some good guys in the locker room and we are looking forward to the rest of the season."
Teammate Glenn Bryant joked that he expects Clarke to hit every shot that he puts up.
"Rot is a great shooter and so we just try to screen for him and get him open looks," Bryant said. "If he gets it off, it probably is about 98 percent it is going in."
Bryant, Johnson, Marcus Britt, Jeff Peterson, Marshawn Powell and Rickey Scott all added 7 points each for the home team.
Jemal Farmer and Julysess Nobles both had 5 points and Marvell Waithe added 3 points and a team-high 7 rebounds to round out the scoring for the Razorbacks.
"We are going to continue to play a lot of folks because we are going to need them all and you never know when something might come up," Pelphrey said.
Arkansas shot 47.4 percent from the field, forced 20 turnovers from the Tigers (0-3) and blocked 8 shots in the game.
The Razorbacks never trailed in the game against the overmatched Tigers, who had lost to both Baylor and Rice on the road last week.
To further damage it's chances, Grambling was without leading scorer Brandon Wilson for unspecified reasons.
Justin Patton had 13 points and 7-foot center P.J. Roberson 12 for the Tigers, who shot just 34.9 percent from the field.
"I think we played well," Clarke said. "We could have played better in the second half, but give credit to Grambling. They did a really good job in the second half, but overall we played good as a team. There are definitely things we can get better on."
Arkansas will play three games next week to complete the Showcase.
The Razorbacks will have Fayetteville contests against Florida Gulf Coast on Monday and Southeast Missouri State on Wednesday before traveling to North Little Rock for a date with Alabama-Birmingham on Friday.
Photos by Marc F.Henning
Rotnei Clarke knocked down 5 3-pointers en route to a 20-point opening night.
Senior Marcus Britt had 7 points, 4 assists, 4 steals and 3 rebounds in 20 minutes of action.
Arkansas assistant coach Brett Nelson and injured junior forward Michael Sanchez.
Delvon Johnson (21), Mardracus Wade (middle) and Julysess Nobles defend the Tigers.
Glenn Bryant flushes home one of his three dunks.
Bryant impedes the path Grambling's Rupert Rose chose to take to the basket.
Marshawn Powell had 7 points, 5 rebounds and 2 steals in 15 minutes as he continues to rehab his injured foot.
Marvell Waithe (22) defends as teammates Bryant, Kikko Haydar (20) and Rickey Scott (3) look on.
Jemal Farmer looks for an open teammate.