Arkansas To Ring In New Year Against Indians

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas junior guard Eric Ferguson had a couple of reasons to feel a little sheepish when he stepped to the free throw line with 49 seconds left on Wednesday against Jacksonville State.

Not only did his face look like he just went the distance with Mike Tyson, but the Razorbacks were also only beating the lightly regarded Gamecocks by eight after Arkansas trailed by six less than 10 minutes earlier.

Thinking about how his mug looked on camera, Ferguson lost his focus at the line and missed the first try of a one-and-one.

Less than 20 seconds later, Ferguson made one of two.

Ferguson may be a little embarrassed at how his face looks after banging his head into the dashboard as a passenger when his friend's car was rear-ended while he was at home in Long Island, N.Y., over Christmas, but he shouldn't feel bad about his play down the stretch of Arkansas' 73-67 win against Jacksonville State.

Ferguson and teammate Ronnie Brewer took the Razorbacks (11-1) on their shoulders with steal after steal and big shot after big shot in the game's final moments Wednesday night, but coach Stan Heath and his team hope no such heroics are needed at 7:05 tonight against Louisiana-Monroe (6-4).

Ferguson wasn't the only Razorback who lost his focus after Christmas break with Arkansas thinking past the Gamecocks to Southeastern Conference play next week.

Heath refused to speculate about what got into his team's heads Wednesday night.

"I don't even try to gauge what those guys are thinking about," he said with a laugh. "I think some guys are looking at the SEC, some guys are looking at, 'Man I had a good time at Christmas,' some guys are looking ahead to New Year's, some guys are thinking about their girlfriends. I don't even try."

Heath wasn't laughing with his heart still pumping 20 minutes after Wednesday's game and he knows his team better get it together in its last nonconference tune-up.

"We have to try to jump on them from beginning to end," Ferguson said. "(Wednesday), we thought it would be an easy game and it wasn't."

The Razorbacks will benefit from the return of 6-foot-7 freshman forward Charles Thomas, who returned to Fayetteville on Thursday after the birth of his daughter, Mariah Thomas, on Tuesday in Jackson, Miss.

With a view toward the start of conference play, Heath will return Thomas to the starting lineup. Thomas started the first eight games before missing the Jacksonville State game and is averaging 9.2 points per game.

The insertion of Ferguson into the starting lineup after finals break led to fast starts and Heath would like to get back to that tonight.

"Charles didn't do anything that warranted a penalty," Heath said. "He's being responsible. He told us what was going on. We set the parameters of when he needed to be back and he's followed through on everything he was supposed to do.

"Our team needs to find a rhythm, so I'm leaning toward starting him."

Thomas was all smiles Thursday wearing his daughter's hospital bracelet on his left wrist.

Heath is worried about his conditioning, but Thomas, who played with the burden of knowing his girlfriend would have to have labor induced a month early for the last few weeks, said he has all the energy he needs.

"After a 10-day break, I got as much energy as coach Heath needs right now," Thomas said. "I feel like jumping over the goal right now. Seeing my girl smile the first time she looked at me ... everything feels really good right now.

"I have a great coach, great teammates, we're like a family. I'm just very happy right now."

Ferguson admitted he and his teammates put a lot of stock in Mississippi State's 95-53 whipping of the Gamecocks before Christmas and thought they would similarly breeze to a win after winning four straight by a combined 141 points.

The Razorbacks are off to their best start in 10 years and the imminence of SEC play next week had Arkansas looking past a team and ahead to Ole Miss on Jan. 5 in Fayetteville.

"We were looking to the SEC, but we have to take one game at a time," Ferguson said. "We took them lightly from the beginning. It was like a homecoming for them. They played harder than us in the beginning."

Arkansas had an uncharacteristically poor defensive night against Jacksonville State with mental breakdowns near the end of the shot clock and against Gamecocks leading scorer Walker D. Russell, who lit up the Razorbacks for 24 points on 9 of 14 shooting.

After coming into the game leading the SEC in field goal defense at 35.9 percent allowed, Arkansas let JSU start the game 6 of 6 and 59 percent for the first half.

The Razorbacks got marginally better in the second half (50 percent) and especially in the final seven minutes when Arkansas forced five of Jacksonville State's 19 turnovers to pull away.

"I think we started sluggish," Brewer said. "I think we played our first game where we underestimated our opponent. They got a lot of confidence knocking down shots. When you give a team confidence, anything can happen. That's why they stayed in the game."

Arkansas started its tall lineup of 6-10 Darian Townes and 7-foot Steven Hill but gave up several layups and allowed a team with five starters shorter than the 6-foot-7 Brewer to match the Razorbacks' points in the paint with 34.

The Razorbacks were tentative offensively against Jacksonville State's 2-3 zone, which sagged in and stripped Arkansas' post players and forced the Hogs to settle for long jumpers.

After shooting Hartford out of a 2-3 zone with a 65 percent shooting night from beyond the 3-point line on Dec. 23 in their 87-55 win, the Razorbacks went just 6 of 19 (31.6 percent) against Jacksonville State.

"We have our normal collection of guys now," Heath said. "We just want to work harder at getting better timing on our offense. We seemed to hold the ball longer than we should have.

"We have to have the discipline to play all the way through a possession. Our defense really was pretty good, it was at the eight-second mark shots were being made and breakdowns were happening. It was a lesson for our team."

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