FAYETTEVILLE - A rather tall band of Grinches rode into Bud Walton Arena and nearly spoiled the Christmas spirit from the Razorbacks and their fans.
But a 14-1 run by Arkansas midway in the second half proved to be enough to grab a 67-59 over a lengthy Texas Southern squad loaded with big-time transfers Wednesday night before 8,805 fans.
Rotnei Clarke had 22 points, Glen Bryant 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 blocks and Jeff Peterson 8 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals for the Razorbacks (8-2) in the team's last game before Christmas break.
"I was just very, very happy for our guy," Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey said. "I wanted this win for them so bad because I felt like they had worked so hard through Christmas here and it just makes it more enjoyable. It's always good to win and hopefully build momentum going into the break and as we come out of it as well."
Pelphrey actually sent all of his players a text earlier in the day to help motivate them for the game and get over last Saturday's 71-62 overtime loss to No. 25 Texas A&M.
"I just really like all these guys and I appreciate how they work, I appreciate their commitment to being a student athlete and their willingness to be coach," Pelphrey said. "I did send them a text just in terms of wanting to encourage them. It's hard coming off a disappointing loss like that, got break coming up and been here practicing for awhile – the whole first semester – and sometimes you can get one foot out the door even thought you don't want to because you get a chance to be home tomorrow and being there with mommy and the family for Christmas.
Clarke said the message was received.
"He told us how bad he wanted it and how bad it wanted it for us," Clarke said. "We needed it."
Arkansas rallied from a 48-46 deficit to take a 60-49 lead with 8:31 remaining in the game over a team that started a quintet that had players 6-11, 6-8, 6-8, 6-7 and 6-5.
They did so without the services of injured starter Rickey Scott (foot) and sophomore forward Marshawn Powell, who played just one minute in the first half, but not because of injury.
"I'm going to put the guys out there that I think are going to put us in the best situation to win tonight," Pelphrey said. "Sometimes you get in the game and it's just the feel you get. You could be wrong. But obviously it's my decision."
Texas Southern (2-8) finally has its whole roster together including SWAC Preseason Player of the Year Travele Jones (15 points), Kentucky transfer Kevin Galloway (13 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists) and Texas transfer Harrison Smith (9 points, 4 rebounds).
Jones – averaging 21 points and 10 rebounds in his two games back - and Smith (13.5) had to sit out the first semester.
"Well, we knew we were getting a different basketball team than everybody else on Texas Southern's schedule," Pelphrey said. "You look at their starting five and they look a little bit different than us and look different than a lot of teams we will play no matter what level it is…They were getting a boost of almost 40 points a game."
Daniel King added 11 points and 8 rebounds for head coach Tony Harvey.
"I'm proud of how my team competed this evening," Harvey said. "This was really just our second game together as a collective unit. We have had guys for different reasons that haven't gotten cleared. But all season long we have been in every game."
Harvey said that Jones and Smith had to sit out the first eight games because of some bad advice by the school's new compliance officer.
With those two added, Texas Southern was poised to pull off the upset before the 14-1 spree by the hosts.
"I thought down the stretch we just made some really poor decisions," Harvey said. "I thought we gave the game away. We missed some easy looks….And we had some bonehead plays in transition."
Harvey was ejected two years ago in his previous trip to Bud Walton – which came in his rookie season as head coach of the Tigers.
Galloway is a 6-7 point guard that was stripped twice by Peterson as Arkansas jumped out to a 9-0 lead and eventually went up 18-8.
"We got off to a beautiful start," Pelphrey said. "Jeff got out there and made some plays and got up under Galloway."
But a 15-2 run by the Tigers announced their intention to be in the contest.
Johnson Danner's 3-pointer with 22.4 seconds in the first half sent the Tigers to intermission with a 35-33 halftime lead and was the first time the Razorbacks had trailed at the break this season.
The two teams traded the lead several times early in the second half before a 9-0 blitz by Arkansas revved up the crowd.
Nobles tied it with a bucket inside, Bryant's steal and ensuing acrobatic lay-up continued the spree and Clarke added the final five points.
The run grew to 14-1 on Peterson's jumper with 8:31 left and Harvey called a timeout with Arkansas ahead 60-49.
Byrant's athleticism – including two dunks in that spree - got the crowd going.
"He's just a different guy when he leaves the floor," Pelphrey said. "He's just been blessed."
With Delvon Johnon (2 points, 3 rebounds) battling foul trouble, the 6-7 Bryant played with four guards a lot in the game.
I was like 6-10 out there," Bryant joked. "I just go out there and do whatever coach asks. I play the four, the five, whatever he needs me to play I'll try my hardest to play."
Texas Southern got it to within 62-59 on Galloway's 3-pointer with 3:03 left in the game, but the Razorbacks scored the last five points of the game to salt the victory away.
"They are a very athletic group, they compete and they play hard," Harvey said of Arkansas. "With as much pressure as they put on the basketball and with how they are capable of making shots, if you get one more guy making shots besides Rotnei, they will be okay."
Arkansas will return to campus on Dec. 26 and host North Carolina A&T on Dec. 29, Texas Arlington on Dec. 31 and go to Texas on Jan. 4 before opening SEC play by hosting Tennessee on Jan. 8.
The Razorbacks will head back to practice with a good feeling instead of a bad one.
"Well, I know it's good for my psyche," Pelphrey said. "It may be good for my kids, too. I won't be a Grinch on Christmas. But I think it's good for our team."