ORLANDO – Even with an exceptional player named Jordan on the other team, the University of Arkansas came up with a winning recipe again on Friday.
Patrick Beverley had 15 points, Gary Ervin 13 and Sonny Weems 12 points and 13 rebounds as the Razorbacks used great defense and sizzling free throw shooting late to down Marist 73-64 in the semifinals of the Old Spice Classic.
"That was a good win for our ball club," Arkansas head coach Stan Heath said. "That is a very good basketball team, a quality basketball team and I will be very suprised if they are not an NCAA down the road."
The win kept Arkansas (4-0) unbeaten and also pushed them into Sunday's 6:30 p.m. championship game on ESPN2 against West Virginia .
They certainly impressed Matt Brady, the third-year head coach for Marist, whose team was 19-10 last season in the Metro Athletic Atlantic Conference.
"I said to my team in preparing for this game that I thought Arkansas was the best team that we had played in my three years at Marist," Brady said. "I think you see why. That is a tremendous defensive team. That is a longer, more athletic and rangier team than normally we see. I think it caused us some frustration."
Charles Thomas and freshman guard Stefan Welsh both added 8 while Vincent Hunter had 7 and Darian Townes 6 – all 13 of their combined points coming in the second half.
"They made a lot of shots," Brady said. "We knew going into this game we were going to make those post players make jump shots. Today they did and I think was really the difference in the game. I don't think it was really Beverley - who is a tremendous freshman - his shots or Weems' shots, I think it was their big guys making shots far from the basket that was the difference in the game."
Marist (3-2) was hoping to slay its second big name after opening with a 63-56 win over Big 10 foe Minnesota on Thursday.
"I don't think they have many holes," Brady said. "They have excellent backcourt play, great size, shot-blocking ability, they are tremendously well-coached on defense and well-coached on offense."
The Razorbacks shot 57.7 percent from the field in the second half to bump their accuracy up to 41.4 mark for the game.
That came after a woeful 28.1 percent effort in the opening 20 minutes.
"Our defense in the first half kept us in the ballgame and gave us a lead and finally our offense clicked a little bit better in the second half," Heath said. "We had a lot of shots that were available to us and we just couldn't knock them down in the first half, but I felt our guys stuck with it, took the things that were given to them and finally the shots started dropping."
There was also an adjustment with the offense at halftime per Heath, who watched his big guys go 1-of-13 from the field before the break.
"We tried a couple of things spacing-wise - just a little bit more wider triangle motion and we were able to get the ball inside," Heath said. "We told our post players with them dropping in so tough, we have got to kick it back out, we have got to be ready to shoot and finally some of those shots dropped. Then we were starting to get a little bit better balance."
Marist point guard Jared Jordan, who led the nation in assists last season, led the Red Foxes with 21 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists.
Will Whittington, who came into the game leading the Red Foxes in scoring at just under 17 points per game, was limited to 10 points on 10 shots.
"That Jared Jordan is tough," Heath said. "He is one of the better point guards we have faced. I am sure we are going to face some great ones down the road, including some great ones in our league, but he was tough to deal with. We felt we needed to slow him down as much as we can and try to take he or (Will) Whittingtton to have a tough ballgame.
"Patrick did a great job of guard Whittington, limiting his touches and making him take tough shots," Heath added.
Hunter's three-point play that made it 38-35 with 12:59 left put the Razorbacks ahead for good and that lead grew to eight when Weems buried a 3-pointer for a 47-39 lead at the 8:16 mark.
From that point on the Razorbacks really had their best stretch of offense while in Florida and zoomed ahead 59-48 when Ervin swished a 3-pointer with 3:01 left in the game.
"Our perimeter guys are starting to show me some things," Heath said. Sonny has been impressive going in there and grabbing those rebounds and Patrick is playing like a much older player."
At that point Arkansas was just 2-of-4 from the line, but began a march that would see them hit 14-of-16 charity tosses down the stretch to salt away the win.
Coupled with hitting their last 14 straight in a 61-53 overtime win over Southern Illinois on Thursday, that means the Razorbacks have made 27-of-29 free throws in the final three minutes of regulation and overtime in the Old Spice Classic.
"We didn't do a good job with that in the exhibition and maybe the first couple of ballgames, but the guys really came in and worked on it," Heath said. "They really worked on them and shot them. I think our practice habits were a little bit better in getting the guys to focus. Hopefully that is one of the reasons that it is paying off.
"I have always thought we were a good free throw shooters in practice and we just weren't carrying it over to the game," Heath continued. "Now we are seeing it carrying over into the game."
Marist jumped out 6-0 early on, but the Razorbacks rallied as they did on Thursday to take the lead.
Ervin broke the ice with a fast-break bucket, Weems put in a pair to tie it, Welsh drilled a 3-pointer and Hunter's free throw gave Arkansas a 10-6 lead at the 11:24 mark.
The Red Foxes rallied to take the lead, but Arkansas responded once again and had climbed ahead 19-13 when Weems knocked a 15-footer with 4:47 left in the first half.
Although Ben Farmer's would tie it, Welsh knocked down another 3-pointer with 42.1 seconds left before intermission that would send the Razorbacks to the break with a 22-19 advantage.
The Razorbacks had 8 of its 14 turnovers by halftime, but that was a far cry from the 15 of their 24 they had before intermission on Thursday.
Arkansas will practice late Saturday and then try to win its second tournament title in three years – including the 2004 Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands.
"The weekend is not over," Beverley said. "We have got to come in with great focus for practice tomorrow and stay on the same page. We are playing very well defensively now, but we just have to get other things going."
Arkansas 73, Marist 64
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