"We knew what was at stake," guard Jamont Gordon said. "That's one reason we came out with a lot of energy, playing very hard. We're in second place." A close second, too, one game behind a 6-5 Ole Miss squad that edged LSU on a last-second shot at Oxford.
That energy was on display immediately. Arkansas might have scored the first five points but the Bulldogs had no problems shrugging that off en route to a double-digit lead at halftime and complete control of the evening. Guard Reginald Delk popped a pair of quick treys, the first of seven by State in the opening period against overmatched Razorback coverage.
"We had a good feeling coming in, we'd practiced good and were making all our shots," said Delk, who had nine of his total 11 points from the arc in that initial half. "We had the feeling we were going to have a hot game." Gordon had three treys of his own and 18 points in all, along with seven assists. That latter stat was the real key to State's outside accuracy, as Gordon managed to draw the right-most Razorback forward near the paint and leave that whole wing open for a series of Dogs. "It was Jamont penetrating and kicking out," Delk said. "They couldn't guard inside so he was creating for us and we were shooting well." Backup guard Barry Stewart had a pair of longballs and 10 points, with ten more by inside/out man Dietric Slater. The 6-3 veteran spent more time inside, at least defensively, as he drew 6-8 power forward Charles Thomas as a matchup. Not to shut him down, which Slater couldn't do as the Jackson native led UA with 14 points. But Thomas didn't have much fun getting his baskets.
"I wanted to step up the defense a little, I hadn't been on the floor as much as I think I should be," said Slater. "I only got three rebounds but I made sure he didn't catch the ball. He threw me to the floor a couple of times but I think I guarded him pretty well."
Hog starting center Steven Hill was covered even better, held to six points and only three shots. The seven-footer did block five shots but only for show, as State's Charles Rhodes thoroughly outplayed his taller counterpart. Rhodes had a game-best 19 points with seven rebounds, and when the Razorbacks did try to get out on shooters the big Dog was able to make them pay. Usually with dunks.
"I wanted to be aggressive, that's what Coach wants me to do against bigs that are slower than me. I'll just out-quick them."
Besides the SEC stakes, the contest was also to be notable for the return of Gary Ervin in a Razorback uniform. This aspect also failed to live up to billing, as the former Bulldog guard (2003-05) not only did not start this game—reportedly due to an after-hours incident at Baton Rouge last weekend--but played just 20 minutes off the bench with no points to show for it. He was even out-scored by Bulldog walk-on Joseph Iupe, who got his first basket of the year on the last shot of the night.
"The coaches said not worry about him coming because we're not playing him, we're playing Arkansas," said senior Slater, who played two season with Ervin. Still it was clear when the former Dog got in he was drawing extra attention, mostly from the home crowd. Ervin did not take a shot until the second half and missed all four of his attempts.
His teammates weren't a whole lot more effective with 36% shooting. Guard Patrick Beverley, perhaps the top freshman guard in the league, did get ten points but took only six shots. No other Arkansan reached double-figures.
"We had a good scouting report," Gordon said. "We knew all their plays and things."
"We had to do two key things," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "We were going to be small and they were going to be big. We were going to get some dribble-penetration and some threes. Then we had to hold our own on the backboards. We felt if we could hold Arkansas to 70 points. We stepped up and did better than that."
The Razorbacks did score those first five points but more than neutralized themselves with five turnovers before the first timeout. And after a couple of forced misses in traffic, the Dogs ended drives with kick-out passes to Reginald Delk for a pair of treys and a 8-5 lead. Delk connected again, from the same right-corner, which loosened things in the lane enough for Rhodes to dunk and State to lead 17-9.
Arkansas got the ball under a bit better control and worked for baskets from Beverley and Sonny Weeks, scoring six-straight and pulling within a pair at 8:13. Rhodes responded, drawing a foul for one free throw and jamming over Hill to draw a Hog timeout. Stopping play didn't slow the onslaught, though, as Richard Delk followed his twin's example with a trey.
Rhodes powered for an old-school three points at five minutes, then Barry Stewart and Ben Hansbrough each floated open in the right corner and drained their treys. Quickly as that the Bulldogs were in front by 36-23. The margin reached 14 points with a minute left in the half as Gordon got his three-ball to fall, and was still 41-29 at intermission.
"We did not have an answer for their three-point shooting that got them off to a great start," UA Coach Stan Heath said. "I know our defense was not as intense as it should have been but they got on a roll and did not let up."
Even when the Razorbacks struck for three to open the new half State got it right back, from Rhodes of all people. Gordon pump-faked Hill out of position for a layup and 15-point bulge, and stuck a three. Everybody got in on the fun as Slater coaxed a trash layup in, Stewart airmailed a 24-footer, and Reg Delk scored off his own steal. The Razorbacks paused play again, to no good end as Slater chased down his own rebound, scored it and was fouled for a three-point play and 64-40 score at 12:29.
At which point Ervin fired his first shot, missing everything. It took Thomas to end a 10-0 State run, but the Bulldogs answered with eight quick points to stretch the lead out to 72-45. The Razorbacks were able to sneak back inside of twenty on some easy baskets and lax State ball-work, but got no closer than 75-59 after Stansbury had some choice words during a timeout and the Dogs put a little more into the late-game defense.
The 60 points matched Arkansas' second-lowest output of the season, and was State's best defensive effort of SEC season. "The turnovers really bothered me," said Heath, who has lost seven of nine meetings with Stansbury teams. "Our inexperience is also hurting us when it comes to turnovers."
The Bulldogs aren't all that much more experienced as a team but are playing good ball as the West stretch-run intensifies. "At this point we're playing our best basketball," Slater said. "We're not just competing, we can beat any team. Especially in The Hump." But now State has to leave home for a rematch at LSU, a team the Dogs beat 85-78 less than two weeks ago. As encouraging as it is to be tied for second tonight, this year the Division rungs are especially slippery.
"You can finish one-through six easy yet," Stansbury said. "But we like where we're at and the way we're playing."