ORLANDO – The first game ever in the Old Spice Classic featured a plethora of turnovers, plenty of defense, not many points and overtime for good measure.
Not to mention the prettiest little ugly win that University of Arkansas head coach Stan Heath has ever seen.
Charles Thomas scored 16 points off the bench and three other Razorbacks netted 12 as jittery Arkansas rallied early and late, shutout Southern Illinois in overtime and eventually got a 61-53 win Thursday at The Milk House in the opener of the Old Spice Classic.
"I'm really proud of our team today," said Heath, whose team won despite having 15 of its 24 turnovers in the opening half. "I felt we showed a lot of character in coming back in the first half and at the end of the game. That was a tough, gritty basketball team that we played and I'm not sure if we will see that kind of defensive pressure at any point the rest of the season. I'm sure we will to some degree, but that team takes it to a whole other level."
The Razorbacks (3-0), who hit their last 14 free throws in the game, were two-point underdogs to a veteran Southern Illinois squad entering the game and trailed 52-47 with just under two minutes left in the game.
But two free throws by Thomas, two more by Steven Hill and a pair with 15.5 seconds left by Gary Ervin gave Arkansas a 53-52 lead.
"We didn't come down here to lose," Thomas said. "We responded and never gave up."
Jamal Tatum, who led Southern Illinois (2-1) with 17 points, tied the game with 7.4 seconds left by making the second of two free throws.
Although Arkansas couldn't get the win with a pair of shots in regulation, the Razorbacks scored all eight of the overtime points – six of them via free throws and a basket by Gary Ervin.
"Going into overtime we knew we could win the game, we just knew it," Townes said. "We knew that if we believed in each other and played hard together we'd win."
Beverley had 10 of his 12 points in the second half.
"Since this is a new thing for everybody, coming to Disney World and this environment, I feel like everybody can out with the jitters. But we had to respond and we had to gut up like we did in the first half."
The Razorbacks finished the game – which featured the 24 turnovers by them and 23 by Southern Illinois – shooting 47 percent from the field and 83 percent (20-of-26) from the free throw line.
The Salukis - who have all five starters back from their fifth straight NCAA Tournament team - shot just 35.3 percent from the field.
"That was an excellent defensive performance by our ball club," Heath said. "To shut them out in overtime and really limit opportunities for them in the second half and down the stretch was huge. As a defense, we neded to rise to the occassion."
Southern Illinois head coach Chris Lowery thought it was more about his team than Arkansas' effort.
"The biggest problem is that we didn't make plays," Lowery said. "We didn't trust each other. One guy made a play off a bounce and that wasn't what we needed to do. We needed to get the ball going and moving."
Lowery also thought that Arkansas did more with his team's turnovers than Salukis did with the Razorbacks.
"They had 24 turnovers, but we just didn't take care of the ball," Lowery said. "Their turnovers were different from ours; our turnovers turned into layups for them."
Ervin, Patrick Beverley and Darian Townes all added 12 for Arkansas while Randal Falker had 14 for Southern Illinois.
The Razorbacks had five turnovers before getting off their first shot and fell down 14-5 early on.
But a 10-0 run fueled by reserves Thomas and Townes steadied the club.
"I thought the game really changed when we got Charles and Darian into the game off the bench," Heath said. "They helped us establish a rhythm and we were able to get going."
The Salukis would take a 26-20 lead with their own run, but Arkansas got it back to within 26-24 by halftime.
The Razorbacks then used an 8-0 run early in the second half to take the lead, one that grew to 38-31 on Beverley's steal and dunk and his 3-pointer from the right wing at the 12:24 mark.
Tatum then helped lead a charge for Southern Illinois, who would take a 43-42 lead on a free throw by Falker.
Although Townes' 3-point play gave Arkansas the lead back, it was seven straight points by the Salukis capped by Tony Young's 3-pointer (his only points of the game) with 2:41 left that put Southern Illinois up 50-45.
"We knew we were not going away," Thomas said. "So we just came out and went back at it and gutted out a win."
One thing that helped was both Southern Illinois forwards - Falker and Matt Shaw - fouling out near the end of the game.
At the same time, Arkansas junior Sonny Weems was clamping down on Tatum, who did not score in the final eight minutes of regulation and overtime.
"Once their big guys fouled out we could put all of our attention on Tatum," Heath said. "I thought Sonny did a great job on him."
Arkansas will play Marist in the second round Friday morning at 9:30 a.m..
Marist downed Minnesota 63-56 in the second game on Friday.
Arkansas 61, S. Illinois 53
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