It may have been billed as a must-win game for both teams, but it seemed like only one team got the message by tip-off.
Especially one senior, who was down to five regular season home games left in his career at the University of Arkansas.
Jonathon Modica put the Razorbacks on his back by scoring 20 of his career-high 37 points in the opening half and also sparkling defensively to lead his team to a 73-59 whipping of South Carolina before 18,286 fans at Bud Walton Arena.
"We came into a must win game and I felt like I owed it to may team to step up and have a great performance," Modica said. I am especially glad we were able to do this in front of our home crowd...When I woke up this morning I said I have going to have a great day. I am going to shoot the 3 if they lay off me and I am going to drive to the goal if they come up close. It all worked well for me and our team today."
Arkansas (15-6, 4-4), which led by 21 in the first half while winning its fourth game in its last six league contests, remains a game behind Alabama (12-8, 5-3) for second place in the SEC Western Division.
The Razorbacks did take over sole possession of third place with Ole Miss losing its fifth straight league game after a 3-0 start by falling at Tennessee on Saturday.
"I thought we really played well as a team," Arkansas head coach Stan Heath said. "We rebounded better. We set the tone with defense and we kept a good shooting team to only 38 percent. We would really like to take this into LSU this week. I think over the last several games our offense has really been picking up."
South Carolina (11-10, 2-6), which beat then-No. 4 Florida at home but has since lost two straight to Tennessee and Arkansas on the road, did make a contest of it in the second half, whittling that lead down to 65-55 with just under three minutes left.
But Modica's eight unanswered points in 43 seconds - an old-fashioned 3-point play, his lay-up off an Eric Ferguson steal and another cold-blooded 3-pointer - put the Gamecocks away.
"Jonathon Modica was just outstanding," Heath said. "I have to give our guys credit for finding the hot hand and riding him out."
Modica was 11-of-17 from the field (6 of 9 from 3-point range) and hit 9 of his 10 free throw attempts.
Showing some class in the final seconds, Modica took one shot for 40, but then held the ball the finals seconds when he could have taken another one.
"I was just happy to help my team win and felt like we had done enough," Modica said. "I didn't want to spoil the day and be a bad sport by trying to run it up."
It was the most points scored by a Razorback since Al Dillard's 39 points against Deleware State back during the national championship season of 1993-94.
"I want to congratulate the Arkansas team, Coach Heath and all of the staff," South Carolina head coach Dave Odom said. "They have done a good job with this and their future is very bright. They are very capable of playing well on the road and at home.
"We did not have our game with us today," Odom continued. "We were very out of sync and I don't know why that is. This is one of more difficult games because Arkansas is such a balanced team. We had no answer for Modica."
Charles Thomas added 13 points off the bench and Ronnie Brewer chipped in 10 points and 7 assists in the win, which came six days after a heartbreaking road loss at Kentucky where the Razorbacks led by as many as 18.
Modica, whose previous career high of 33 points came against Mississippi State during his sophomore season, came into the game averaging 14.1 points.
He had surpassed his season-high of 22 against Radford less than three minutes into the second half.
"Any shot that Modica took today was a good shot," Arkansas sophomore Charles Thomas said. "He really created a spark for us that set the tone."
Arkansas trailed 6-2 opening the game before the insertion of Darian Townes, Thomas and Dontell Jefferson into the game sparked both the Razorbacks' offense and defense.
Modica's 3-pointer and Thomas' rebound basket gave Arkansas - which shot 51 percent from the field and made its first 10 free throws on a day when it shot 70 peercent from the line - a 7-6 advantage and it would not trail the rest of the way.
Thomas was selected to start the game by Heath, but asked to continue coming off the bench and sophomore Vincent Hunter got his first start of the season.
"Charles just said he felt more comfortable coming off the bench and wanted to stay in that role and just let somebody else get the start," Heath said.
By the time Modica hit his fourth 3-pointer of the first half - and second on back-to-back trips down the floor, he had 18 points and the Razorbacks had stormed to a 35-15 lead at the 3:56 mark.
Modica added two free throws at the 3:22 mark to cap his first-half outburts and give the Razorbacks their largest lead of the opening half at 37-16.
The home team took a 39-21 lead into intermission.
"Arkansas had an oustanding early start," South Carolina's Tarance Kinsey said. "Modica's shooting got us out of sync. He was on fire and we couldn't put it out."
That Arkansas lead grew to 22 on Modica's free throws that made it 43-21 with 18:38 left in the game.
At that point South Carolina began its comeback, getting it down to 13 on several occassions before Kinsey's two free throws cut it to 65-55 with 2:55 remaining.
After a timeout, Modica finished off its day with a flourish.
"I love the way we played in the first half," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. "I wish they wouldn't make me so nervous in the second half and would just put teams away. Both teams were fighting for their lives today and we knew they would come back on us."
The Razorbacks outrebounded the Gamecocks 32-28 with Townes leading the way with 6 boards in just 11 minutes after grabbing just one rebound in 28 minutes at Kentucky.
"Darian is a very talented player," Heath said. "There'sa lot he can give us. He had two rebounds in his last two games. We needed him to get rebounds. Today, he got six in 11 minutes, and I think that says a lot about what he is capable of."
Arkansas now moves on to play Wednesday night at LSU (15-6, 7-1), who lost at Alabama on Saturday, and then will host Auburn next Saturday in a 7:05 game at Bud Walton Arena.
Arkansas 73, South Carolina 59
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