Arkansas basketball players and coaches had in recent days talked about finishing the first half with a flourish instead of a deficit.
A 23-2 run in the last six minutes before halftime Wednesday night took care of that and handed UA head coach Stan Heath a happy 39th birthday present followed by his team signing to him and wishing him well with a cake afterwards in the interview room.
"Wow, that would have been a bummer if we hadn't won, huh? Heath said who then started to make a wish, "I wish for 20, uh, NCAA, uh, oh never mind."
Jonathon "Pookie" Modica poured in 16 of his game-high 22 points in the opening 20 minutes and the Razorbacks used the aforementioned first half barrage to bury Louisiana Tech en route to a 68-56 victory Wednesday night before 13,229 fans at Bud Walton Arena.
"I thought we really got the game turned around by going to the boards tough and getting some rebounds, turning up our defensive pressure and just hustling and getting after it during that stretch," Heath said. "…I thought it was our best first half of the season. I would have liked to have seen that happen more in the second half than it did, but we gutted out the win and for that I am happy."
Arkansas (6-1) , which will host highly-regarded Oklahoma State (5-1) at 4:05 p.m. Saturday afternoon, used the spree to turn a 23-20 deficit into a 43-25 lead when Modica hit a pair of free throws with 0.7 left on the clock after he stole the ball and was fouled at halfcourt.
It was the seventh straight game Modica, who hit all nine of his free throws, topped the 20-point mark and continued his streak of leading his team in scoring each night.
Freshman guard Ronnie Brewer added 14 points and fellow rookie Olu Famutimi nine and senior forward Billy Pharis seven points and game-high five assists in the game.
They were all anxious to give credit to fifth-year senior guard Charles Tatum (6 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists in a season high 25 minutes) for his second consecutive solid effort off the bench.
"Chuck was very solid," Modica said. "He gave us veteran minutes. He defended very well. He kept our team calm. He was a big part of this victory."
The Razobacks shot 50 percent from the field in the opening half and 43 percent on the night, had 16 assists and committed 16 turnovers while forcing 21 miscues and outrebounded its foe 36-33.
Several of those Tech turnovers happened during the Arkansas run as the Razorbacks turned up the pressure on defense.
Darnell Allick had 15 points to lead Louisiana Tech (3-3), coming in off back-to-back wins over Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Freshman phenom Paul Millsap struggled offensively with just 9 points but did grab 13 rebounds while former Greenwood standout Brian Martin added six for the Bulldogs.
The Razorbacks built their lead to as large at 51-32 on Tatum's 3-pointer with 14:20 left in the game and Louisiana Tech never got closer than the 12-point deficit with which it ended the game.
Tatum had played just 14 minutes total this season before his 25-minute stint filling in for sophomore Eric Ferguson, who had the flu.
"I'm tired," Tatum said after having played just 14 minutes total before Wednesday night. "It feels good to contribute. Eric came down with a little illness. I just came in, put some pressure on the ball and it worked out. I didn't need to score. What the team needed from me was defensive pressure. Pookie and Ronnie were doing the scoring."
Heath said the 5-10 Tatum got a little tired.
"He asked to come out (during at timeout)," Heath said. "I said ‘no, you have to stay in there.' A couple of games ago we looked at our team and thought there was something missing chemistry-wise. We needed to find a blue-collar spark. He's 5-6 and doesn't have jet-lightning quicks, but he will hustle and scrap and is not afraid to put his body on the floor. He ignited our team tonight and it happened in the previous game, too."
The Razorbacks actually led 16-11 before Louisiana Tech went on a 12-4 run of its on to make the native restless when they took a 23-20 edge on Wayne Powell's bucket inside with 6:06 left in the first half.
Heath took a timeout and his charges immediately responded with Ferguson's lay-up starting a 16-0 run capped by Modica's lay-up and free throw that made it 36-23 with 2:03 remaining before intermission.
"We got a lot of easy buckets from our defense," Modica said. "Our shot selection was good also. We were taking the ball to the bucket."
One of the plays during that stretch was Tatum diving on the floor to take a ball away form Allick.
"Me and Allick were jawing," Tatum said. "I have to get loose balls for us. That's what you do in big-time college basketball and it felt good."
Louisiana Tech's Powell finally broke the ice for his team, but Modica responded with a 3-pointer, Brewer got free for lay-up and Modica stripped Allick right before the buzzer and cashed it two free throws.
That burst allowed them to have a cushion in the second half and tune up for the contest with Oklahoma State, who whipped former NAIA school Southeastern Oklahoma St. 93-46 on Tuesday night.
It will be the first time in nearly 20 years that former Razorback coach and current Oklahoma State head coach Eddie Sutton will bring a team to Fayetteville.
The game will also be a rematch of last year's 71-45 of the Razorbacks by the Cowboys in Stillwater.
"OSU is a big game for us," Modica said. "Last year when we went there it was the first time for the freshmen to be in a big-time road atmosphere. We came into that gym and saw nothing but orange. We didn't know what it us. We know this time we are going to see some very good man-to-man defense. We have got to be prepared to take it to them."
Chuck Tatum runs the point for the Hogs against Tech.
Photos by Tom Ewart
Arkansas 68, Louisiana Tech 56
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