Not Picture Perfect, But Something's Developing

FAYETTEVILLE -Thanks to a defense-fueled second-half flurry that pushed the Hogs past pesky Ole Miss, Arkansas is off and running, 1-0 in Southeastern Conference play for the first time since Nolan Richardson's bunch bested Auburn on Jan. 5, 2002.

In Stan Heath's first two seasons, the Razorbacks began SEC play 0-3.

"The past two years, you know, we weren't that good," said a soaking Arkansas junior guard Eric Ferguson.

You can't exactly say they started SEC play with a bang (it was more like a pop), but Wednesday night's 69-46 win in front of 18,016 in Bud Walton Arena showed the Hogs definitely are on the right track as they now shift to a tougher game at Florida on Saturday.

"I feel in my mind we can beat (the Gators)," Ferguson said. "And anybody else we play."

That sort of confidence, Heath said, especially after playing some teams that weren't near SEC caliber, made netting this crucial.

Without 6-foot-8, 200-pound senior forward Tommie Eddie (ruled ineligible as he climbed onto the team bus for this road trip), Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes said the Rebels really couldn't go inside-outside as they are accustomed.

"But give Arkansas a lot of credit," said a worn-out looking Barnes. "They're playing well this season. That's a balanced basketball team."

As usual against these typical Barnes man-to-man, blue-collar teams, this was mostly ugly, particularly in the first half when Arkansas (13-1) managed just 37.5 percent from the floor.

"I think we could've played a little bit better," said Arkansas sophomore guard Ronnie Brewer. "We were bailing out at the end on shot-clock situations."

The Rebels' Londrick Nolen started things off with a 3-pointer and his two free throws knotted it at 7-all. Two more Nolen freebies cut the Hogs' lead to 12-10.

Couldn't help but think it.

Rollin' with Nolen?

Next possession, Brewer's lob to Olu Famutimi was an alley-oops as it splattered off the backboard.

Before Ferguson's lay-in from a Brewer inbounds pass gave the Hogs a 14-10 edge, the teams had combined to make just 6 of 28 shots from the floor and Arkansas had netting just 4 of 8 free throws.

Twelve fouls - many of the ticky-tack variety -were called on the Hogs in the first half, driving a hopping-mad (literally) Heath and his young bunch crazy.

Still, at 27-20 with just over three minutes left until intermission, Arkansas looked ready to put Ole Miss (9-5) away, but the Hogs went into the break up only 27-23.

At the half, Heath calmed the Hogs, whom he said "let the calls get to 'em."

After getting just two first-half steals while causing only six Ole Miss turnovers, Arkansas' defense came alive in the second half, clamping down in the halfcourt, zipping into passing lanes and flying to the ball, often swatting and dribbling in fluid motions.

The Hogs finished with 13 steals and scored 25 points off 24 Ole Miss turnovers. Bolstered by a 55.6 percent second half, the 47.1 total doesn't seem so bad.

Ole Miss managed just 25.5 percent for the game.

"Because of their athleticism, we weren't as aggressive as we have been," Barnes said.

Brewer started the second half with a steal and slam, and his long jumper gave the Hogs breathing room at 36-28.

A Jonathon Modica steal and layup was followed by a Ferguson steal and flip to Modica for another easy banker, giving Arkansas a 50-33 cushion.

From there, the taller, quicker, deeper and better Hogs were off to the races.

No, it wasn't particularly pretty, this sort of game in which the winning team managed just two points off two intentional fouls.

But nobody passes out style points.

Hey, it's a start.

And a good one at that.

Thus the Hogs look to run into Matt Walshless Florida with plenty of momentum.

"Protecting home is key," Heath said. "This was good for us.

"Now we just want to carry that momentum down to Florida, go into their place and steal a win."

Ferguson smiled.

"If we do it on defense, we can get 'em on offense," he insisted.

This season, you know, they just might be that good.

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