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Defense Shuts Down Arkansas as Ware Takes Charge

If it had been an election of some sort, Arkansas would have written the concession speech by halftime and delivered it with ten minutes remaining. But that would have cut short Mississippi State’s fun before all precincts reported.

The Bulldogs gave their best all-around performance of a frustrating SEC season at each end of their home court handing Arkansas a 78-46 whipping. The best part? There was nothing mysterious about how the Dogs did it. “We showed up and played,” center Gavin Ware said.

Played what Coach Ben Howland called “Obviously our best game of the year.” Nobody was arguing that point. Mississippi State got their first win of February for a 10-13 mark, 3-8 SEC. The Razorbacks left Humphrey Coliseum 12-13 and 5-6 SEC. It was the first Bulldog success in the series since 2012, and the largest winning margin in league play since 2005 against Auburn (90-53).

“This is the game we needed,” said guard/forward Quindarry Weatherspoon. “I think this will spark us.”

Freshman Weatherspoon was one real spark, giving a beautifully-balanced performance whether working at ‘power’ forward or swinging to the perimeter. Weatherspoon picked his shots well, making 5-of-8 and scoring 16 points. Even better, the rookie had ten rebounds at his 6-4 size with a couple of assists and a blocked shot.

But for all the kid’s out-of-position success, it is the Dog who sticks to his role who dominated play. Ware was superb with 21 points on 6-of-9 shooting, and made all his nine free throw chances as Razorbacks just could not check him. Ware added 10 rebounds of his own, his sixth double-double of the senior season.

Howland had the rare luxury of spelling his only post player all evening, too. Aric Holman and Travis Daniels filled in just fine, especially senior forward Daniel with 10 rebounds and two blocks. In all the Bulldogs rejected nine of Arkansas’ 72 shots…and that was a key to the victory.

A month ago in Fayetteville, the home team destroyed State’s zone defense with 16 treys in 24 tries. Since then Howland has committed, when the roster allows, to playing man defense. Results have been mixed still but this night the Bulldogs had a hand in enough snouts to help the Razorbacks go just 1-of-10 at the arc. For that matter the Hogs missed most of their wide-open looks as well.

“I’m really impressed with our effort defensively, our ability to switch and communicate and take away their personnel,” Howland said. By the final horn the Hogs had hit just 22% of all shots and no starter was in double-digit points.

Arkansas basketball suffered the distinction of being held to fewer points than their football team scored on Mississippi State last November. Both were losses of course.

UA Coach Mike Anderson thought his team didn’t show up with the energy he expected, and as the game ground on their emotions got in the way also. “It seemed we came out, missed some outside shots, and it affected our guys even when we started going inside,” Anderson said. “Give Mississippi State credit, Ben had those guys prepared.”

Howland’s first preparation was to handle Arkansas full-court pressure, which took the Dogs out of their game in round-one. Guard Malik Newman and guard Craig Sword did a good bit of ball-handling but was when point guard IJ Ready got on the court the tempo really changed. Ready had missed the last game with back spasms; this night he was a pain in backsides.

“Their press typically is a difficult thing,” Howland said. “I thought we were attacking and looking to score in transition.” But, not to be overlooked, it was far, far easier for State to get into transition by forcing Razorback misses and rebounding them before any press or traps could be set up.

Neither offense had much to be proud of for five minutes, and at 9:17 the visitors had a 10-9 lead. It vanished immediately and completely as Arkansas went frigid from all over. “It seemed it was a lid on the basket, one of those nights we just can’t buy anything,” Anderson said.

Then the Bulldogs beat Arkansas at their own transition game, either for quick runouts or a series of short jumpers with everyone hitting something inside the arc. State scored 11 unanswered points, then another seven as the Hogs had five scoreless minutes.

Even when they ended the drought the Dogs answered with a Weatherspoon trey to make it 36-14 at four minutes. By halftime it was 42-20 after Ready popped an easy jumper.

“We were really excited,” Ware said of the intermission talk. “But a lot of guys said we’ve been here before, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves and let them come back.”

They did not. Arkansas’ first and only trey came at 17:37 of the last half, by Anthlon Bell. When a few shorter shots fell Arkansas tried full-court pressure only to see State beat it easily.

“We had everybody on one page and just clicking on defense,” Ware said. “It led to good things on offense.” State shot 53% for the night and was 20 of 27 at the foul line, with a 50-39 rebounding edge.

“We didn’t run any sets tonight,” Howland said. “It was all motion against their switching. Gavin let the game come to him and Chicken (Sword, 10 points) to start the second half did a great job.”

With eight points Thomas became the 36th Bulldog to reach 1,000 in a career. Ware is well-ahead on that list, now #20 all-time scorer at State. As easy as his team made it look, Howland cautioned against dismissing the victims too lightly.

“Arkansas is a good team, they just beat Texas A&M, so it’s a really solid win for us.” It was also a win that allows Howland to raise the expectations for his team as February grinds on. “Now you see what we’re capable of. The secret is out, we can play very good.”

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