State of the Hogs: Shooters Win

HI.com publisher Clay Henry gives you his take on Bucknell's 59-55 victory over Arkansas in the NCAA basketball tournament.

DALLAS – Give me shooters. Give me smarts. Give me a team like Bucknell.

That's what I was feeling after the Bisons held off the more athletic, longer and stronger Arkansas Razorbacks in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament Friday afternoon at American Air Lines Arena.

Bucknell has the reputation as a little school with the ability to knock off a giant now and then, but I don't know what the NCAA Selection Committee was thinking when it seeded the Bisons only 8th in the Oakland Regional.

The Bisons may go down in the next round if Memphis can shoot it better than Arkansas did in its one-and-done NCAA tournament appearance. But I like their chances against almost anyone outside the top four seeds in this tournament.

Charles Lee, Kevin Bettencourt and Jason Vegotsky have about as pure a stroke from long distance as any team you'll see in this tournament. Center Chris McNauhgton gives the Bisons an inside presence and is crafty on his drives and step-in moves.

But it's the smarts the Bisons displayed in getting their shots off late in the shot clock that impressed me the most. They came off their screens with their wrists cocked and ready. And, every one of those threes that swished the nets looked like they were good all the way.

Bucknell finished the day at 11 of 21 on threes for 52.4 percent. The Bisons were consistent. They hit 5 of 9 in the opening half. They caned 6 of 12 in the second half.

Foul shooting was another plus for the Bisons. They nailed 14 of 18 for the game while the Hogs were 15 of 24, including only 11 of 20 in the second half.

And, that matchup zone the Bisons deployed throttled every Razorback except Jonathon "Pookie" Modica. Ronnie Brewer never got his game going except in transition, and you can't blame the matchup on that.

Modica did score 19 points despite a bad ankle which limited his play down the stretch to offensive possessions. But he couldn't find his 3-point stroke, missing all four of his shots from beyond the arc.

Brewer was the only other Arkansas player in double figures with 14 points, but he did it mostly at the foul line, the lone Hog who shot it well from there. He made 7 of 8 from the line.

"We concentrated on Modica and Brewer in our defense," Bucknell coach Pat Flannery said. "We started off playing a man and a half on each of them. We figured out that the most aggressive player was Brewer, so we committed a full two men to him after that.

"He still made a big three right in our face in the corner to get them back in it."

The Hogs actually made one more field goal and one more free throw than the Bisons. So it was clearly the work they did on threes where they outscored the Hogs nine points that proved to be the difference.

"Threes are a big part of the game," Flannery said. "It's changed. We found we could drive the ball against their defense and we did that to get the kick out on the threes, sometimes late in the clock. We hit some big shots and then got some confidence in playing that way."

At least two of those big shots came midway through the second half with the Hogs trying to claw back with tough defense and good board work on the offensive end. Lee hit one of them, Vegotsky another that was more of a desparation heave than a stroke.

"I was on the man both times," Vincent Hunter said. "I thought I was up on him pretty good, but I guess not. I just didn't think those were good shots and were going to help them. I was wrong. I didn't get up on them good enough."

Perhaps those weren't open looks, but the Bisons did get more than their share of good views of the rim thanks to some nice screens.

"Give them credit, they set some good screens and cut off them pretty good," said Eric Ferguson, decked by one of them for an uncontested three that swished.

"That one wasn't a legal screen. The guy stuck his knee out and he got me right in the middle of my thigh. The others were good screens. Give 'em credit. Bucknell can play. They would be a very good team in our conference. They'd probably finish in the top five."

The Hogs weren't disappointed in the looks they got on offense despite the solid defensive play from the Bisons.

"I thought we had enough open shots," said Brewer, who said he hadn't thought of his future when asked afterwards. "We also got to the line and didn't make enough there. I thought it was just a case of them making more of their good looks than we made.

"Defensively, I thought we did pretty well. We played them pretty tough. They just made more shots than we did. We didn't give them a lot of opportunities, but when we did, they took advantage of them."

Modica said a lot of the same things when he was at the speaker's platform in the post-game media room. He was gracious in defeat, congratulating the Bisons throughout that session. There were no signs of emotion during any of those questions.

However, on the walk back to the Arkansas dressing room some 25 minutes after the final buzzer, it hit Modica that his days were over in a UA uniform and he began to sob.

Modica slumped in the dressing room as reporters finally gave him some time alone. Later, he tried to put things into perspective and apologized for not having his usual bounce.

"I asked to come out a few times in the second half," he said. "My (sprained) ankle was bothering me. I had to have it taped very tight just to play. And, when you have it taped that tightly, the circulation goes and it can become very painful. That's what happened.

"I asked (trainer) Dave (England) to cut some of the tape off, hoping I could play on it. But then I didn't have any support there. It just wasn't right. You try to go up and there's nothing there."

Modica thanked his teammates for clawing back at the end despite his lack of mobility on defense.

"I thought we were right there," he said. "We didn't give up and we played so hard, everyone."

Ferguson, another senior who played his last game for the Hogs, apologized for not nailing the 3-pointer with 30 seconds left which could have given the Hogs the lead.

"That look really surprised me," he said. "We were working it around and all of a sudden, they left me alone, really open. I didn't expect to get that kind of a look in that situation. I think it caught me by surprise and I rushed it. I mean, man, I was wide open. I should have taken my time."

I don't know about that. Bucknell's shooters didn't have to take any time when they found themselves open. They pulled the trigger and swished those shots.

That's why the Bisons will be playing on Sunday and the Hogs are done. As I said before, give me some shooters.

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