Hogs Come Together At Ole Miss

FAYETTEVILLE -- Mike Jones isn't playing, but he's still contributing.

The Arkansas senior forward shelved with a groin injury since Jan. 29 called a team meeting Friday night at the team hotel to talk about how the Razorbacks would turn their season around the following day against Ole Miss.

Hogs coach Stan Heath, who had met with his team earlier in the day, wasn't aware of the players-only meeting until after Arkansas beat Ole Miss 66-65 to end its 13-game road losing streak in the Southeastern Conference.

But he had already seen its results.

After narrow losses to No. 11 Alabama (64-61), LSU (66-63 in overtime) and No. 6 Kentucky (68-67) and no-show performances at Mississippi State (80-55) and at South Carolina (64-52), the Razorbacks didn't just break through in Oxford.

They finally bonded as a team.

Arkansas enjoyed a number of blowout wins in the nonconference season, but once the Razorbacks got into SEC play, cracks began to show in team chemistry.

The Razorbacks broke down into individualistic styles when the going got tough, began giving up easy baskets in their man-to-man defense and went prolonged stretches without scoring in the halfcourt offense.

The flaws were particularly glaring on the road, where Arkansas kept a three-season, 13-game losing streak on the SEC road going until Saturday.

To a man, the Razorbacks brought up their Friday night meeting as the main reason for their attitude while building a 55-44 lead and their ability to stick together after falling behind 62-59 with less than three minutes to play.

Jones called the meeting, but everyone from senior to freshmen spoke up.

"It wasn't like, ‘I'm going to talk and you listen,'" said junior captain Jonathon  Modica. "Everybody got to express themselves. I think that helped us a lot in the game."

They talked about what each needed to contribute for Arkansas to be successful and challenged one another to step their games up.

The product of their collective effort was a win all nine Razorbacks who played and one who didn't could claim as theirs.

From Jones' leadership to 7-foot Steven Hill's towering defense over 5-9 Ole Miss guard Cavadas Nunnery on the Rebels' desperate inbounds pass with 1.5 seconds left to Dontell Jefferson stepping up to draw senior center Tommie Eddie's fourth foul, this was a team win in every sense of the word.

Players who had been struggling made contributions that added up.

Jefferson scored 5 points, grabbed 4 rebounds and scored the game-winning free throw.

Rashard Sullivan made 2 of 2 free throws and snared 4 rebounds in 13 minutes.

Charles Thomas had another rough shooting day but had a key block after the Razorbacks' third backcourt turnover in 90 seconds to slow down Ole Miss' comeback.

The Razorbacks (15-7, 3-6 SEC) preserved their NCAA Tournament hopes with home games against Georgia (7-12, 1-8) and LSU (12-7, 5-3) this week.

They also preserved their team camaraderie after a series of heartbreaking losses and inconsistent play.

"I saw a lot from this team the last couple days in practice," Heath said. "The camaraderie they were starting to build and maybe the desire to win. I could see they had a desire to win, not just to play close or play well individually.

"That's been a process as well. Blending and bonding everybody. We saw a lot of positives (Saturday)."

Modica, who averaged 16.5 points last season but has struggled with his confidence after Heath changed his role from starter to reserve and his minutes fluctuated accordingly, played an "inspired" game by Heath's judgment.

Modica started for the first time in two months, had a career-high seven assists, scored 13 points and was enthused about sophomore and fellow captain Ronnie Brewer trusting him to make the go-ahead play with less than 40 seconds to play.

Brewer made a dangerous pass from the opposite wing to Modica on the low block against Todd Abernathy. Modica reeled in the bullet feed, posted up, turned and fired a shot he knew was going to give Arkansas a 65-64 lead as soon as he caught the pass.

"I wanted the basketball and they gave it to me," said Modica, whose play was preserved when Jefferson made one of two free throws after drawing a foul on Arkansas' last shot attempt with 2.2 seconds remaining.

"We all felt we were a better team than we were playing. We just want to get to the NCAA Tournament. Guys had to step up to the plate and today was a good start."

Freshman center Darian Townes, who had a team-high 19 points and dominated the paint offensively against the smaller Rebels, said the Razorbacks' newfound unity came along just in time.

"If we would have had this bond we have right now before we played our first road game, I really think we'd be undefeated or have lost one game or two," Townes said. "All of this is a learning experience for the team. We're still in the race. We still have big games to play."

Heath was pleased to see his team finally take ownership over its performance and postseason destiny.

"At some point in time when you get into your season, you know your offense, you know your defense, you know the intensity level you have to play with," he said. "At some point in time, the players have to decide, ‘What are we all about here?'

"'What do we want to do? What do we want to accomplish?' Maybe that was a button, but that's something we've been emphasizing. It has to be an ‘us' thing.

"Was (Saturday) the magic day? Yeah, it was."

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