ORLANDO – The University of Arkansas completed its trip to the so-called happiest place on earth by taking home the inaugural Old Spice Classic championship trophy.
All-Tournament pick Sonny Weems had 19 points and Charles Thomas 13 as the unbeaten Razorbacks led for the final 39 minutes of the game while downing West Virginia 71-64 Sunday night before 1,827 fans at The Milk House arena inside Walt Disney World's Sports Complex.
"We played a very, very good West Virginia team and I can't tell you how proud I am of our team, to prepare and focus and execute our game plan in a short amount of time," Arkansas head coach Stan Heath said. "That was against probably - in my mind - one of the two two of three teams to ever have to prepare against whether you have one day or you have a week."
The win lifted Arkansas (5-0) to its first tournament title since the Paradise Jam championship back in 2004 and came after Old Spice Classic wins over Southern Illinois and Marist and previously unbeaten West Virginia (5-1).
The three teams that Arkansas beat combined to go 6-3 overall in the event making it an even more impressive tournament run for the Razorbacks.
"I really felt that we played the toughest schedule out of anybody," Heath said. "We played Southern Illinois, we played Marist and then we played West Virginia. I thought those were clearly the top three teams outside of ourselves in this field.
"Every game I thought we got better, every game we were able to improve in different ways," Heath added. "Today was our best team performance. I thought we shared the ball very well, we were unselfish and we played unselfish on the defensive end as well. It allowed us to play our best 40 minutes."
Steven Hill, Gary Ervin and Stefan Welsh all added 8 points each while Ervin also dished out 7 assists, all-tournament pick Patrick Beverley 7 points and 5 assists and Vincent Hunter 6 points and a game-high 8 rebounds.
For the third straight game, the Razorbacks were sizzling from the free throw line by stepping to the line and netting 18-of-21 attempts and also dominated on the boards to the tune of 38-18.
"I thought our guys came out and got off to a great start and rebounding was huge for us - just the way we really commanded the boards," Heath said. "And just the way we were able to get high percentage shots from the three or the two."
Arkansas hit 54-of-67 free throws in the event, including 48 of its last 55.
"That free throw line the last three games has been phenomenal," Heath said. "Hopefully we can continue that through the year because it is something that can make a difference in a lot of ballgames."
Darris Nichols led the Mountaineers with 15 points while Joe Alexander had 14 for a team that had not been challenged in this tournament or in any of its other games to start the season.
West Virginia head coach John Beilein, whose program has thrived on 3-point shooting and a 1-3-1 defense that confuses opponents, was very impressed with Arkansas.
"I think we played a terrific team," Beilein said. "We had opened up our season with five games and except for the Mount St. Mary's game – which was our first game – they were over in retrospect pretty quickly. This team is very, very talented. They went to the foul line and made their shots, made big open jump shots and saw the floor very well."
Beilein, whose program went to the Elite Eight and the Sweet 16 in the past two seasons, thought this has some March type moments early on from the Razorbacks.
"At times they looked like a really well-oiled machine for November 26th," Beilein said. "…I think their defense was outstanding. I think our guys saw themselves open from three or saw a good drive and everything closed up quickly. We can't duplicate that in practice and we certainly didn't duplicate it in the games we've had so far."
Arkansas led 35-28 at halftime and West Virginia, who was ahead for less than 20 seconds in the game, could never get it under four from that point on although they did stage a furious comeback from down.
When Welsh knocked down a 3-pointer with 10:07 left in the game, Arkansas had boosted its lead to 55-40.
The Mountaineers did fashion a furious finished to get within 66-62 on Da'Sean Butler's 3-pointer with 46 seconds left, but Weems' old fashioned three-point play ended any hopes for West Virginia.
The Razorbacks shot 61.1 percent from the field in the second half and 53.5 percent for the game with what Heath said was a philosophy of attacking.
"We made some subtle changes in what we do, they weren't wholesale changes," Heath said. "The guys - more than anything - they were ready to play, they were in attack mode, they weren't passive, they weren't on their heels and that aggressive allowed them to play and not overthink too much."
Unlike the first two games, Arkansas got its offense off early and jumped out to a 16-7 lead when Weems scored on a drive with 12:58 left in the half.
West Virginia wiped out nearly all of that with seven consecutive points, culminating with Alex Ruoff's spinning lay-up that cut it to 16-14 with 10:19 before intermission.
But Arkansas responded right back and grabbed its largest lead of the opening half when Stefan Welsh netted two free throw to send Arkansas ahead 28-16 with 5:23 left in the half.
Back came West Virginia with seven straight again and the Mountaineers then cut it to 30-26 as Nichols buried a 3-pointer as 2:06 showed on the clock.
Ervin cashed in five straight points, a fastbreak lay-up and a 3-pointer to surge Arkansas back ahead seven, but Nichols jumper right before the buzzer made it 35-28 at the break.
They would have a comfortable cushion throughout most of the second half with the new guards a big part in that.
"It's been an adjustment with a new backcourt, but as you can see we are starting to click on all cylinder," Thomas said. "We played, for the first time, as a team. It was a good win as a team."
The Razorbacks will return to action on Thursday when they travel to Missouri (6-0) for their first true road game.
Arkansas 71, West Virginia 64
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