Junior college transfer point guard Dontell Jefferson made his first start since Dec. 7 at Missouri and junior power forward Rashard Sullivan made his first introduction since Nov. 22 in St. Thomas in the Paradise Jam finals against Eastern Michigan.
Both of those games were wins, just like Saturday's 70-68 victory against Tennessee before 19,084 in Bud Walton Arena.
The move sent second-leading scorer Jonathon Modica, who'd averaged 15.3 points in his last five games as a starter, to the bench and he only played 13 minutes against Tennessee with 3 points on 1 of 5 shooting, along with a rebound, an assist and a blocked shot.
Modica had no turnovers after making 11 in his previous three games.
"I had to make a tough decision because Modica had been playing really well and I know personally, he's more comfortable starting," Heath said. "I had to do what I thought was best for the team in terms of getting our defense back and adding an extra ball-handler on the court."
With defense and ball-handling at a premium, Heath came up with his lineup of Jefferson, Sullivan, Ronnie Brewer, Olu Famutimi and Darian Townes on Tuesday but apparently didn't get the information to the public address announcer, who introduced Modica as a member of the starting lineup.
"I talked to Pookie on Thursday and I told him, ‘I need you to play at a high level,'" Heath said. "'It's nothing you did wrong, but some of my concerns with my team I need to address and this is the direction I need to go.'"
The lineup got Arkansas off to a 12-7 lead before any substitutions with five points coming from Jefferson and it was the oft-struggling transfer -- like he did in the Hogs' 66-65 win on Feb. 5 at Ole Miss -- making two critical plays down the stretch to help key the win.
With Tennessee down 69-68 and less than a minute remaining, the Vols' 2-3 zone forced Jefferson to try a tough pull-up jumper as the shot clock wound down.
He got his own miss and like he did at Ole Miss, Jefferson made 1 of 2 free throws to put Tennessee in a position to choose between going for the win or the tie.
Jefferson finished with 6 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal and 3 turnovers.
"It felt great to be in the starting lineup," Jefferson said. "It really doesn't matter, though. I just want to contribute and help the team win."
Sullivan followed up his 8 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocks against Vanderbilt last Saturday with 3 points (all coming on a hoop and foul to start the second half), 6 rebounds and 3 blocks against the Vols.
Sullivan, who has made his last 11 free throw attempts, helped set the tone defensively by blocking Tennessee's first shot attempt of the game and making a basket-saving rejection to lead to a Charles Thomas dunk at the other end to help the Hogs cut Tennessee's first-half lead to 29-25.
"Rashard gave us some toughness we needed with the intensity he brings," Heath said. "He got us off to a good start."
Thomas hadn't scored in four games before Saturday but he matched his SEC-high with 9 points, the most since he rang up that number against Ole Miss in the conference opener on Jan. 5.
He shot 4 of 7 from the floor and 1 of 2 from the line with 3 rebounds and made the game-clinching basket to put Arkansas ahead 69-66 with 2:57 to play.
He committed three turnovers out of the high post, but his scoring from the elbow helped negate Tennessee's 2-3 zone better than Arkansas' offense has done recently.
Particularly noteworthy was Thomas throwing down his first dunk of the season with 5:23 to play in the first half and Arkansas trailing 29-23.
Following a Sullivan block, Thomas soared to the rim after taking off 10 feet from the basket with an old school one-handed jam to start a 14-3 run to close the first half.
"It's good to have him back," Heath said.
Boo Birds In Bud Walton
The Arkansas fans were close to the most irate they've been all season on Saturday after Ferguson was called for a technical foul for hanging on the rim following his dunk with 8:40 to play.
Already hacked off by no-calls when the Vols looked to be going over the back for rebounds, the penalty on Ferguson was magnified when Famutimi was called for a touch foul against Chris Lofton on the ensuing possession, leading to two more free throws.
With boos raining down, the PA announcer warned fans not to throw anything on the court or a technical would be called on Arkansas.
"It was an angry coach, too," Heath said. "There were a lot of angry people in the building."
The announcer even tried to stop the booing by relaying the baseball team's 12-3 win against Minnesota, but that barely fazed the crowd and the fans continued to hammer the officials until Arkansas retook the lead with a 6-0 run.
"I did hang on the rim," said Ferguson, who had a less-than clean dunk at the Paradise Jam. "I'm not happy that I did it, but you know, that tech kind of got my teammates fired up and the crowd fired up."
After a shot-clock violation against Arkansas with 14:04 to play in the second half, some scattered boos were even sent the Hogs' way for their stagnant offense.
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