Razorbacks Back In SEC West Race

FAYETTEVILLE — Well, there will be an actual chase for the Southeastern Conference Western Division championship, after all.

The Arkansas Razorbacks turned back Mississippi State 78-58 on Wednesday night, using their most complete effort this season to halt the Bulldogs' nine-game winning streak. With the emphatic victory, Arkansas (14-5, 4-2) drew to within one game of Mississippi State (14-6, 5-1) in the division standings.

And in the process, the Hogs looked more like a collective unit, more like a group of players that cared for one another, than they have all season. They consistently overachieved on both ends of the floor, thrilling the Bud Walton Arena crowd of 17,927 and impressing Arkansas' first-year coach John Pelphrey.

"I'm proud of all of the guys in terms of how hard they played," Pelphrey said. "We wanted to do the ordinary things even more — dive on the floor more, take more charges, rebound more, encourage our teammates more.

"I thought they were a team out there. Tonight, they had ‘it.'"

Pelphrey's "it" reference could pertain to many things, but defense was the most glaring area in which Arkansas constantly performed selflessly, just as he preaches.

The Razorbacks drew four charges. They forced 22 turnovers, converting them into 26 points. And they showed no fear offensively in attacking Mississippi State shot-blocker extraordinaire Jarvis Varnado, drawing two early fouls on the country's leader in rejections.

In many ways, the Razorbacks beat the Bulldogs the way Mississippi State wants to topple foes.

"They just outplayed and out-toughed us tonight," said Bulldog guard Jamont Gordon, who led all scorers with 24 points. "They beat us on the rebounds. They got shots when they wanted to. They just out-toughed us."

Both teams matched the other's physicality in Wednesday night's early minutes. The Razorbacks and Bulldogs combined to miss 14 of the game's first 15 shots. They also combined for eight turnovers before Arkansas took control with a 14-0 spurt that turned an 11-7 deficit into a 21-11 lead.

The Hogs never trailed after senior Sonny Weems scored 10 of his game-high 22 points in the run that took just one minute and 59 seconds. Arkansas eventually went up 43-28 at halftime, using 14 first-half points from sophomore Patrick Beverley to score more points than Mississippi State had allowed in a half this season.

But it was Arkansas' frantic, nonstop pressure that fueled its first-half onslaught. Pelphrey stood on the sideline in amazement, clapping and encouraging and slapping behinds and giving high-fives.

"It was pretty cool (to watch) because I know how good Mississippi State is," Pelphrey said. "The only problem for our guys is now I'm going to challenge them to do that again. We don't need to take any steps back again."

Save for the first few minutes of the second half — when Pelphrey screamed "Play harder!" amidst an 8-0 Bulldog run — Arkansas routinely gave maximum effort.

Senior forward Vincent Hunter set the tone in the second minute, diving to the floor and tapping the ball to senior Gary Ervin. Stefan Welsh stood stiff as Gordon barreled into the sophomore guard for a charge. Freshman guard Marcus Britt used his only minute of playing time to throw his body on the floor for a rebound. And Beverley snatched at least 10 boards for the fourth time in five games.

Just a few of examples of why Arkansas justifiably becomes an SEC West contender once again.

"Ever since the Georgia and South Carolina losses, all we've focused on is defense," Weems said. "All we hear is ‘Defense, defense, defense' from the coaches. This all just comes down to us getting down and guarding, and we did it.

"We have big hearts. We dug deep down inside and decided we're not going to let this season go to waste."

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