The Razorbacks staved off an impressive upset bid by Jacksonville State and squeaked out a 73-67 victory before 15,924 fans in Bud Walton Arena.
Arkansas (11-1), which came into the game leading the Southeastern Conference in field goal defense, allowed the Gamecocks (4-8) to shoot 59 percent in the first half and 50 percent for the game, trailed 33-31 at intermission and by as much as 48-42 with 10 minutes to play before pulling away with an 18-4 run.
"It looks like we went home for Christmas and left our defense at home," said Arkansas coach Stan Heath. "We weren't very good (Thursday). We didn't play very well, but I'm happy we were able to find a way to win."
Gamecocks junior guard Walker D. Russell was a terror against the Razorbacks with 24 points --12 in each half -- on 9 of 14 shooting. Russell had 6 assists and 3 steals but also committed 9 of Jacksonville State's 19 turnovers.
"They thought we were going to come in and lay down because they're Arkansas, quote, unquote," Russell said. "We came out and gave them a hell of a fight. I think they were on their heels at times in the games. Down the stretch, they executed a little better."
Sophomore Ronnie Brewer had his third career double-double with 17 points and a career-high 13 rebounds and a beat up Eric Ferguson added 13 points, 6 assists and matched Brewer's 4 steals.
Ferguson played with two skid marks on his forehead, a bloody eye, an ugly split lip and a sore back from being a passenger in a car wreck while home in Long Island for Christmas but teamed up with Brewer to spark the Razorbacks' decisive run.
He quickly ditched the headband he wore to cover the bumps on his head and took a few more shots in the face during the game.
"They hit my lip a couple times, but I have to take it like a man and keep fighting," he said. "It's given us a lot of confidence to know we can win close games. They beat me up, but I'm a soldier."
Brewer, Ferguson and Olu Famutimi put the clamps down on Russell in the final 10 minutes.
Russell gave the Gamecocks their largest lead by hitting a free throw to make it 48-42 with 10:32 to play, but Arkansas freshman center Darian Townes tipped in a miss and Russell threw a pass out of bounds on the next possession.
Famutimi hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to one, Townes blocked a Brandon Davis offering out of bounds and Brewer tipped a B.J. Spencer pass to Ferguson, who found a streaking Jonathon Modica for a layup and a 49-48 lead.
A tip-in by Dorian Brown gave the Gamecocks the lead right back, but a pair of Brewer free throws and a Ferguson 3-pointer made it a 54-52 Arkansas lead at the 7:13 mark.
Famutimi blocked Russell's next attempt and Ferguson again found Modica cherry-picking for a dunk.
Brewer stole another ball from Davis and went all the way for another dunk and Arkansas led 60-52 with 5:47 to play.
The Gamecocks refused to fold, though.
Brown dunked off an assist by Russell, Anthony Wilson scored 3 of his 15 on a long jumper and Charles Lumpkin went to the basket hard for consecutive field goals to cut the Arkansas lead to 64-61.
Ferguson started to put the game away with a steal and a layup and Brewer hit two free throws sandwiched around two by Russell for a technical foul on Modica after Brewer's first make.
Ferguson stole it from Russell again and fed Brewer for another basket and a 71-63 lead with 1:13 to play.
Arkansas won a game it could have easily lost and in the last two seasons probably would have with examples like home defeats to Troy in 2002 and Western Carolina in 2003.
"It was a big win because they had us down by five points and we stayed together," Ferguson said. "A year or two ago, we would have broke down. That just showed us we're a good team."
Brewer said Arkansas showed its maturity by coming from behind to win.
"We grew a lot from last year," Brewer said. "I don't think last year's team could come back from a (Christmas) break and win a close game. That's a positive thing. Hopefully we can play better on Friday.
"We showed our team has a lot of heart and we have an identity. We come to play defense and that's what's going to lead us to win games."
The crowd got so loud it resembled an SEC game more than a late December "buy" game. Heath and Gamecocks coach Mike LaPlante said the fans were a factor in the outcome.
"I thought that really helped our players," Heath said. "We have the potential to be good, but sometimes our youth is going to show and we need our fans to help us through that."
Arkansas' experiment of starting the 6-10 Townes and fellow freshman 7-footer Steven Hill didn't work too well against the smaller Gamecocks, who used a patient offense to catch the Razorbacks slipping on defense.
Jacksonville State ran the shot clock down patiently on several possessions and three times the Gamecocks got shots at or very near the buzzer.
Brewer and Ferguson had uncharacteristically poor shooting nights (Brewer 5 of 14, Ferguson 5 of 13) and senior Mike Jones provided an offensive spark off the bench in the first half with 8 points on 4 of 6 shooting.
The Razorbacks had 9 turnovers in the first half and 16 with eight minutes to play but didn't give it away again in the closing moments.
"We can take care of the ball when we want to," Heath said. "It's more of a mental thing. Our team has to defend. We feed off that. We didn't do it tonight."
Arkansas Survives Upest-Minded Jacksonville State
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