ATLANTA - There is no doubt that one of – if not the worst – efforts of the season for the University of Arkansas was at South Carolina.
Thursday – against the same team that was the worst in the SEC this season – the Razorbacks trotted out one of their best.
Darian Townes and Gary Ervin each had 16 points as Arkansas had just four turnovers and hit 12 shots in a row while crushing South Carolina 82-52 in the opening round of the SEC Tournament at the Georgia Dome.
"I thought we played well today, as well in the second half as we have all year," Arkansas head coach Stan Heath said. "...We were good on the boards. We were phenomenal taking care of the basketball. If we could have done that all year long, we would have won a lot of games. Hopefully this is the start of us continuing to make progress as we go through this tournament."
The win was the third in a row for Arkansas (19-12), who advances to play Vanderbilt (20-10) Friday at 2:15 p.m. in the quarterfinals in a rematch of a game in which the Razorbacks downed the Commodores 82-67 last Saturday in Nashville.
It also keeps the the UA's hopes alive for trying to get itself into the NCAA Tournament.
"I think they've got a good chance to do good things in this tournament," South Carolina head coach Dave Odom said of the Razorbacks. "They've already done one good thing and I think they have a chance to do some others.
"They've got enough - they're playing Vanderbilt and you can make of that what you will," Odom continued. "Vanderbilt's got an excellent basketball team, Arkansas' got an excellent team. But should Arkansas beat able to get past Vanderbilt, I think they have the depth to play four games."
Patrick Beverley chipped in 11 and Sonny Weems 10 for Arkansas.
Brandon Wallace led South Carolina (14-16) with 16 points and 15 rebounds while Bryce Sheldon added 13 points and Tre Kelly – the Gamecocks' leading scorer at 19 per game – had just 11 on Thursday.
Kelly was held down by 6-6 Sonny Weems, who did not allow him to get off easy shots.
"They were just trying to go with size on me to make shots and plays that I can normally make were difficult for me to make today," Kelly said.
Weems said he had a lot of help on Kelly, who was 4-of-14 from the field.
"I think I found out after the Vanderbilt game (that he was going to guard Kelly) and I was like, 'hey, that's crazy to have me guard Tre' Kelly,"' Weems said. "But you know I have great confidence in myself and I think I did a good job. But it wasn't all about me, it was a team effort."
Arkansas shot 55 percent from the field in the second half, 47 percent for the game and outrebounded South Carolina - something that did not do in the earlier matchup - to the tune of 43-32.
Not to mention the 4 turnovers - which was by far a season low from the 11 the Razorbacks had against Texas, LSU and Florida this season.
It was the second lowest total in SEC Tournament history behind Vanderbilt's 3 in game against Florida in 2004.
"Coming into this game, Coach told us if we can control the basketball, we'll win this game," Ervin said. "We did a good job of that. And every time we don't turn the ball over, we'll win."
Steven Hill had 8 points and 10 rebounds for Arkansas, who now has beaten Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and South Carolina in succession.
Hill set the tone for the second half just seconds after halftime when the Razorbacks led just 34-32.
Hill got loose for a dunk and then blocked a shot, raced after and then dove for the loose ball and flicked it ahead to Beverley, who got a lay-up and got fouled on the play.
"I thought that was the play of the game," Heath said. "To see a big guy like that, lay it out there, dive on the floor and I didn't think he had much of a chance," Heath said. "That was an unbelievable play. And Patrick got the benefits of scoring, but it was that play that made it go and it gave us a lift as a basketball team. I saw guys jumping up and down and fired up about it."
That started a 13-3 run – capped by a Townes' dunk that put the Razorbacks ahead 47-35 – and the lead just kept expanding until the Razorbacks were up 77-49 when Charles Thomas hit a pair of free throws with 3:45 remaining.
"They smelled blood, so to speak, and went right after us and we weren't able to overcome it," Odom said.
That included the 12-for-12 stretch that started with a dunk by Razorbacks freshman Michael Washington to make it 40-33 and ended when Townes got his fourth dunk during the run to make it 64-47 with 8:46 left in the game.
"We just wanted to keep attacking them and just go right at them inside and out," said Townes, who was seven of nine from the field. "Every shot we took went in. Everybody on the team played real good. Everything was real positive, nothing negative today."
Arkansas led by as many as five points early on, before a South Carolina 7-2 rally gave the Gamecocks an 18-16 advantage with 8:22 left in the hallf on Wallace's slam after driving around Steven Hill.
The Razorbacks answered with four straight points and had pushed that margin out to 29-22 on Hill's two free throws with 45.7 seconds left in the half.
Washington then capped the first half scoring with a tip-in at the halftime buzzer of Beverley's missed 3-pointer that sent Arkansas into the locker room with a 31-24 lead.
Washington was again a solid contributor off the bench with 9 points and 3 rebounds in 21 minutes.
As Odom pointed out, he is just another reason that Arkansas is much better now than it was in January when the two teams met.
"Well, teams either get better or get worse," Odom said. "They've clearly gotten better...They are a good team now because they have got a team. They are not just being pulled at it from one position or another."
Arkansas 82, S. Carolina 52
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