Arkansas expected its toughest game of the young 2003-2004 college basketball season and Oral Roberts certainly delivered on Wednesday night.
But the Razorbacks answered the challenge early and late and remained unbeaten with a 77-71 win over the Golden Eagles before an inspired 13,428 fans at Bud Walton Arena.
"It's great to pull one out like this," noted second-year head coach Stan Heath, whose team started 1-4 last season en route to a 9-19 campaign. "This is the kind of game we would have lost last season. But even though we can get a lot better, our guys really did some things in the second half and at the end of the game to show me that we are moving forward."
Arkansas did so behind two big defensive plays with just over 90 seconds left in the game by sophomore Jonathon "Pookie" Modica on ORU freshman phenom Ken Tutt, who
refused to let his team be put away.
Tutt tossed in a dazzling 12 straight points for his team on a night when he tallied a team-high 17, but Modica helped Eric Ferguson on defense late and stripped Tutt twice to keep the Golden Eagles at bay.
"I was really proud of how well Jonathon played defense," Heath said. "Not only did he play Josh Atkinson really well, but made some key steals late. I was on him a little bit early in the game about his defense and rebounding., but he really stepped it up."
Modica and fellow sophomore Ferguson, easily playing his best game of the year while picking up four of his team's nine steals, led Arkansas with 18 points each.
"I not only think this was Eric's best game this year, but was probably the best one of his career here," Heath said. "He got after it on defense, really got on Tutt after we switched him on him and just played really well in all phases of the game."
The win helped Arkansas (4-0) avenge a 76-64 road loss to ORU just a year ago and no doubt gave them some confidence heading into Saturday's road game with No. 11 Illinois.
"It felt good to win this close game," Modica said. "Last year we didn't like how it turned out over there, and we wanted to win this game a lot. This gives us confidence going into the weekend when we play Illinois. They are a good team so it will take a lot of work."
ORU head coach Scott Sutton, the son of former Arkansas and current Oklahoma State head coach Eddie Sutton, was disappointed with the loss.
"I really thought this was a game we could come in and win," Sutton said. "Arkansas is a lot like us in that they are young. They are going to get better and better as the year goes on."
If he had been a fan instead of a coach of the Golden Eagles (3-3), Sutton would have liked it more.
"I said earlier this week that if you were a fan of college basketball, this will be a good game to watch and it really turned out to be a great game," Sutton said. "There were a lot of good players out there for both teams."
Heath lauded the fans that were on hand.
"The fans really energized our team," Heath said. "The energy was great and we soaked it up. We can't protect our home turf without our fans."
The game was tied at 56-56 with under seven minutes left before Arkansas, which started last season 1-4, used its defense to give itself some cushion.
Ferguson's steal resulted in a free throw and was followed by consecutive steals and dunks by freshmen Ronnie Brewer and Vincent Hunter for a 61-56 lead with 5:42 remaining.
But Tutt just kept coming and tied the scored 67-67 with just over two minutes left when his third straight contested three-pointer found the mark.
Billy Pharis' jumper gave the Razorbacks the lead for good and Modica then pulled off his two straight steals when ORU went to Tutt and Arkansas doubled.
That resulted in a free throw and a basket that surged the home team ahead 72-67 with 1:09 remaining.
Arkansas, which struggled early from the free throw line and was 14-of-30 there on the night, then made just enough charity tosses down the stretch to put the game away.
Brewer added 14 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists for the Razorbacks and Pharis had a season-high 12 points for the home team, which did get outrebounded 37-32
But they did shoot 50 percent from the field and for the second straight time and only the second time in Heath's 32-game tenure at Arkansas had more assists (17) than turnovers (12) while also forcing ORU into 18 miscues of its own and the visitors into just 44.4 percent from the field.
ORU freshman Caleb Green (6-7, 240) added 15 points and juniors Schuyler Thomas (6-9, 220) and Ralph Charles added 11 and Eric Fowlkes 10.
The visitors scored the first eight points of the game before Arkansas steadied itself to get back within 10-8.
However, the Golden Eagles got easy baskets, some second-chance ones while out-hustling the Razorbacks to the boards and took nine-points leads on three occasions, the last time a 30-21 advantage on Fowlkes' lay-up with 3:48 remaining in the half.
Arkansas roared back with a 11-2 run, tying the game on Brewer's lay-up off a Ferguson steal that tied the game 32-32 with 52.6 second left in the half.
The Razorbacks had a chance to take the lead, but instead a miss and Jonathan Bluitt's half-court shot sent ORU to the break with a 35-32 lead.
Arkansas responded well after intermission by scoring 11 of the second half's initial 13 points, surging to a 43-37 lead on Ferguson's steal and bucket with 16:42 remaining in the game.
Modica, who had just four points at half, had six points in that spree.
"Seem like we didn't get into it until the last four minutes of the first half," Heath said. " At that point our offense started to feed off of our defense. In the second half we went inside and we got a good spurt from Modica."
The Razorbacks kept a nice cushion until Tutt got hot and ORU took the lead on three occasions, the last time on the first of his quartet of 3-pointers.
Down the stretch, Heath played just six players.
"The last 10 minutes we decided to go with five or six and just ask them to suck it up. It seemed like we made a lot of big plays down the stretch and got some momentum baskets," Heath said. "A lot of it was our defense. Modica stepped up.
"I don't know if we made any changes," Heath added. We ask out big guys to get down in their stance and stay there and get over the top of screens. We also got some help from the perimeter. They were digging down and helping inside. Late in the game, I though Sullivan and Pharis both did a good job. Billy stayed down and moved his feet and cut off angles to stop Green. We got Eric on their 3-point shooter. He took away some shots and that really help."
Arkansas returns to action Saturday with an 11 a.m. game against No. 11 Illinois (3-1) in Chicago. The game will be televised by the ARSN network.
Here's a look at the new scoreboard in Bud Walton Arena.
Ronnie Brewer sets up a play against ORU.
Eric Ferguson provided some key defense down the stretch.
Billy Pharis helped with 12 points against ORU.
Photos by Tom Ewart
Arkansas 77, ORU 71
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