MOBILE, Ala. – The University of Arkansas' precocious freshmen got their team going and then the veteran stepped up and knocked down a clutch one on the road.
Junior Stefan Welsh's game-winning 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds left capped a career-high 24-point night and lifted the University of Arkansas over South Alabama 79-77 Wednesday night at the Mitchell Center in the 10th annual Coors Classic at the Mitchell Center.
"What a big, big shot," Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey said of s shot that gave the Razorbacks there only lead of the second half and capped a 25-13 run to end the game. "I am so very proud of these guys for staying in there, not giving up and playing hard until the end."
Former Alabama prep star Courtney Fortson had a career-high 25 points and Rotnei Clarke 12 and they joined with Welsh in hitting 4 each of 12 3-pointers for the Razorbacks (3-1) on a night South Alabama's 17-game home win streak game to an end.
"I said earlier in the year that if we could get wins at Missouri State (a 62-57 loss) and at South Alabama, they would not be good wins, they would be great wins," Pelphrey said. "...This is a big, big road win."
Clarke hit a 3-pointer to get his team within 77-76 with 47 seconds left, South Alabama's Daniel Hayles missed two free throws (he had not missed all year) and then Welsh buried a 22-footer for the win.
"Coming out of our timeout, I went to one of our assistant coaches and told him 'Coach, I am going to win this basketball game for us because we need it bad," Welsh said.
"Coach had called a play for Courtney to get to the basket because he had been killing them all night," Welsh continued. "They sent three defenders at him and did a good job of running at him to cut off that last play. I came off the first pick and roll and was a little bit open, but I didn't want to force it. I knew I had another pick coming from Mike Washington.
"When I came off the second pick I was surprised that there was nobody there because they had been doing a great job of hedging all night," Welsh added. "Nobody was there and I shot it and as soon as he left my hands, I knew it was good."
Arkansas, who shot 49.1 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from 3-point range, won in part because of a couragous effort from Washington, who had 8 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.
"Michael Washington was unbelieveable," Pelphrey said. "He had a back sprain, a back spasm - he's back locked up. It happened earlier in the day, right before shoot-around. He never could get loose. I am so proud of his effort. It was one of the most couragous efforts I have seen because he was playing at about 30 or 40 percent. He hung in there and made some plays."
It was a game between Pelphrey's current and former teams as South Alabama (2-3) has five players that the current Arkansas coach recruited.
"It was bizarre," Pelphrey said. "I actually had more guys over there that had played in a college game for me to start the season than I had over here."
Pelphrey pumped his fist at the buzzer of the win, which gave Arkansas a 5-0 mark in its series with South Alabama, which was 26-7 and was in the NCAA Tournament last season.
"I didn't realize how good I thought that would feel for us to win that basketball game," Pelphrey said. "That was a little uncharacteristic of me at the end with the fist pump."
Domonic Tilford had 23 points, Brandon Davis 18 and LaShun Watson 10 to lead South Alabama.
"They hit some big buckets at the end that won them the game," noted South Alabama head coach Ronnie Arrow, who was the Jaguars' coach before Pelphrey and then followed him up. "It's unfortunate, because I thought we really played well enough to win the game tonight. I'm proud of our guys, but some mental errors at the end of the game just cost us, and you can't have those in a close game like that."
Neither team tore it up from the free throw line with Arkansas hitting just 11-of-18 and South Alabama 17-of 25.
Arkansas led by as much as 8 points in the opening 20 minutes before finding itself down 45-44 at the break.
The homestanding Jaguars slowly began to open up the tight game and took a 64-54 lead midway through the second half.
But the Razorbacks came storming back – just as they did at Missouri State last Saturday night – and closed to within 66-65 when Fortson hit two free throws with 8:36 left.
Watson's lay-up put the home team back ahead 75-71 with 4:58 remaining.
Fortson had 14 points, Welsh 11 and Clarke 9 in the opening half.
The two freshmen guards were red-hot from 3-point range, combining to go 7-of-9 with Fortson nailing all four of his and Clarke 3-of-5.
Tilford had 15 points opening half and Davis 13.
Both teams were sizzling in the first half with Arkansas hitting 65 percent of its field goal attempts – including 7-of-8 3-pointers – in the first 16 minutes of the game.
But South Alabama had a 42-38 lead at that point because the Jaguars had hit 60 percent of their shots, 5-of-6 3-pointers and 5-of-7 free throws.
The Razorbacks – shooting just 60 percent from the free throw line this season – were just 1-of-6 from the charity stripe up until then and 2-of-7 in the first half.
Ironically, Clarke's 3-pointer with 1:51 left before intermission was the last bit of scoring in an opening half that produced 89 points.
The two teams did cool off toward the end of the first half and Arkansas finished at 58.6 percent overall and 66.7 from 3-point range.
The Razorbacks had just 12 turnovers on Wednesday night despite the up-tempo contest.
"When you have good guards in a game that usually happens," Pelphrey said. "I thought we were better tonight with our pivoting. We probably had 3 or 4 walk calls at Missouri State because our feet weren't correct and our ballfakes. If we just took those miscues out out of the game up there - and we shot 52 percent in the second half up there - maybe we win the game...Tonight we cleaned those things up.
Arkansas will return to action Saturday when it hosts Florida A&M at 1:30 p.m.
"You try not to get too high or too low because there is always another game coming," Pelphrey said. "We were very, very devastated by the loss at Missouri State. Tonight we played better down the stretch. We still have a lot to get better at."
There won't be any taking off for Thanksgiving.
"We only have two days to get ready for FAMU," Pelphrey said. "They don't know it yet, but we are going to practice tomorrow, probably in the afternoon, and then be able to enjoy some Thanksgiving. Then we are going to go doubles (two practices) on Friday and play early on Saturday. We have got to be all about getting better right now."
It marks a stretch of over a month of home games as the Razorbacks don't have their next road game until Jan. 14 at Ole Miss.
"That was something we talked about, how this would be a our last chance to get a road kill before that," Pelphrey said. "We needed a little confidence with that. This was good. It was a hostile environment against a very good basketball team and I am proud of those guys."
Stefan Welsh and Brandon Moore celebrate Welsh's game-winning shot.
Courtney Fortson scores in traffic during his career-high 25 point effort on Wednesday night.
Rotnei Clarke gets a shot off under pressure as Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey looks on.
Michael Washington gutted his way to 8 points and a game-high 13 rebounds despite playing with a back injury.
Michael Sanchez didn't get his fourth straight double figure rebounding effort, but contributed scrappy play such as this.
Montrell McDonald battles inside.
Arkansas defenders Welsh, Washington, McDonald and Marcus Britt converge.
Pelphrey directs traffic standing up...
...and from the floor.
Arkansas 79, South Alabama 77
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