A struggling Arkansas basketball team feeling a bit put upon responded to a big challenge on Saturday with a winning effort.
Freshman Ronnie Brewer tossed in a career-high 21 points, sophomore Jonathon "Pookie" Modica matched that output and lightly-used junior Michael Jones started and tossed in season-highs of 18 points and 7 rebounds as the Razorbacks upset No. 22 Vanderbilt 70-62 Saturday afternoon before 17,169 fans at Bud Walton Arena.
It was the second straight season that a rebuilding Arkansas (10-7, 2-4) knocked off a No. 22 ranked team in Bud Walton Arena, while the victory also ended a skid of four losses in five games and helped the Razorbacks surpass last year's win total in a 9-19 campaign.
"That was a tremendous win for those players in that locker room," Razorback head coach Stan Heath said. "We showed a lot of heart, played with a lot of passion - they really wanted the game.
"There were a lot of people writing us off and a little bit over-critical of us," Heath said. "That's fine, that goes with the territory. But I told the guys in the locker room that we are going to make some mistakes, we don't have all the perfect answers on this team, but the one thing that we have control of is our effort, desire and our passion. If we do that, then to hell with everybody else and what they say. I think they really bought into that and we played that way today."
Matt Jones (four points, six rebounds in 16 minutes), Vincent Hunter (5 points, 3 blocks, 2 rebounds in 22 minutes) and Olu Famutimi (five points, two rebounds in 23 minutes) all played key roles off the bench with Heath calling Arkansas' football quarterback "a demon on the boards."
That trio had just two of Arkansas' 12 turnovers among themselves in the combined 61 minutes and all gave the Razorback a physical presence on the floor at times.
"There were a lot of heroes in that locker room, a lot of guys that stepped up big for us," Heath said. "...We played really good basketball today. We had a great team effort...I think we showed a lot of character."
SEC preseason player of the year Matt Freije had 19 points and 7 rebounds to lead the Commodores (13-2, 2-3) and Mario Moore added 17 as the two combined for half of their team's points.
It was Vanderbilt's 12th straight league road loss, something that happened in large part because they were forced into 17 turnovers and because Arkansas shot 53.8 percent in the field in the second half and 46 percent overall.
The Commodores, who entered the contest second in the league in scoring, field goal percentage and free throw percentage, shot just 37.7 percent from the field and just 59.1 percent (13-of-22) from the free throw line while Arkansas was 16-of-19 from the charity stripe.
"Arkansas was just more aggressive than we were tonight," Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings. "They were faster than we were with the ball. We missed too many free throws and we turned the ball over too many times. Any time you do that on the road, you aren't going to win. Those mistakes will cost you the game."
The biggest surprise was certainly the 6-9 Michael Jones, who had not scored more than eight points in any game this season and who had played just three minutes total in the past two games and just 24 minutes in the past seven outings.
Jones played a whopping 33 on Saturday while hitting 5-of-15 shots, including two 3-pointers, and knocking down all six of the free throws he attempted.
"Mike Jones just came out there and he's been up and down and the coaches have been overlooking him a little bit," Heath said. "He responded in a big way. I am really proud of him."
Heath said he made the decision to start Jones - whose defense has been suspect and was the biggest reason for his pine time - on Friday night and it paid off as he helped battle the bigger Vanderbilt team on the boards where they ended up winning 35-29.
"There were a lot of candidates, but I just thought Mike might give us something that we didn't have," Heath said. "We haven't been able to shoot a good field goal percentage in this conference so far and I thought he might be the best candidate in that area since we were having trouble defending anyway.
"Give Mike a lot of credit," Heath continued. "That (defense and rebounding) has not been his strong suit. But today I thought he rebounded extremely well and was in (defensive position). He had a terrific two days of practice. He was Mat Freije on the scout team and he was lighting us up. So I was like Mike ‘why don't you just be Matt Freije out there today?'"
Brewer (four assists, four turnovers, two steals) also excelled in 33 minutes while playing point for most of the game while Eric Ferguson (scoreless but five assists in 20 minutes) was hurting with a knee injury and only able to play 20 minutes.
"I thought Brewer just played a tremendous all-around game," Heath said, "especially having to handle the majority of the point guard responsibilities...He showed he might be a guy that can run some things for us. He is just a multidimensional player. He can score on you, he can handle the ball and make decisions. He is long armed, very active and picks a lot of pockets. He had two or three dunks off of steals."
Arkansas, who led at halftime in each of their last four losses, led 25-22 at halftime on Saturday before getting out of the gate again slow after intermission and falling behind 34-30.
But a Heath timeout helped steady the Razorbacks and they didn't let go of the rope this time and battled in a back-and-forth game that featured eight lead changes in the second half.
"We said ‘this has happened before, now let's regroup,'" Heath said. ‘"Let's put out the fire and let's go down and take some good shots.' That's the thing I saw today. I saw a lot more patience offensively, better execution, I saw us being more selective with some of our decisions on shots and it shows up in the assist-turnover column."
Arkansas took the lead for good on a Matt Jones dunk off a feed from Brewer that put the Razorbacks up 53-51 with 5:39 left in the game.
Michael Jones then bombed home a 3-pointer - also off an assist from Brewer - just 21 seconds later to surge that lead to 56-51.
After Vandy got within to two on Freije's free throw, Modica swished one of his four 3-pointers early on in the shot clock with 2:43 remaining and the Razorbacks would never lead by less than five again.
Modica's two free throws with 5.6 seconds remaining gave Arkansas a 70-59 cushion - it's largest lead of the night - and the huge throng on hand celebrated wildly.
"We had a tremendous turnout of fans that really energized us during times when we got a little bit down," Heath said. "I think that is something we need to figure out how to feed off of when we go on the road because we don't have the same energy that the crowd gives us."
Arkansas does not have a mid-week game and so will take off from practice Sunday and Monday before returning to the court on Tuesday.
The Razorbacks will be back in action on Saturday when they travel to Athens to face Georgia in a 4 p.m. game.
Arkansas 70, Vanderbilt 62
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