Before a Sunday night matchup with Arkansas, all the talk surrounded guard Courtney Fortson.
The dynamic sophomore was fresh off the best performance of his career, a 35-point showing in a win over Mississippi State Thursday.
But with 12:28 remaining in the second half, Fortson was sidelined with four fouls. No. 18 Ole Miss led 53-48 at the time, and was looking to capitalize against a less than stellar Razorback supporting cast.
That is, until Mike Washington and Rotnei Clarke took the game over.
In Fortson's absence, the pair combined for 27 points, nine rebounds and no turnovers. It proved the difference, as Ole Miss dropped its third conference game of the season, 80-73, in front of an announced crowd of 8,719 inside Tad Smith Coliseum.
With the loss, the Rebels fell to 16-5 (4-3 SEC) on the year and are now second in the SEC West behind Mississippi State. Sunday snapped a three-game SEC win streak for Ole Miss, and is the second loss in three tries at home this season.
"We had opportunities," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. "We played very poorly in the second half. There were a couple of turnovers and we gave them life. Michael Washington was tremendous. He played with a great sense of urgency and we had no answer for him. Rotnei Clarke, we knew coming in we couldn't give him separation. We did, and he made us pay."
Clarke connected on a 3-pointer, one of four in the win, and gave Arkansas a 60-58 lead with 9:44 left in regulation. Ole Miss tied it on a Murphy Holloway jumper, but the Razorbacks continued to chip away.
After back-to-back treys by Chris Warren and Terrico White, Ole Miss held all momentum with a 66-63 advantage. However, an 8-2 run flipped the score in Arkansas' favor. At 71-68, the Razorbacks never trailed again.
Clarke closed it out with four consecutive free throws in the game's waning seconds. The sophomore finished with 18 points, including 13 in the second half.
"When we did our job, he didn't have a chance to unload it," said Kennedy of Clarke. "But he's a tremendous shooter with unlimited range. They did a very good job of trying to free him up. We gave him space and he made some big shots."
The game opened as a track meet. Ole Miss scored four quick points, but Arkansas responded to take the lead at 5-4. However, leading 14-12, the Rebels used a 6-0 run to add a little distance. Ole Miss pushed ahead by as much as eight points twice, including a 26-18 advantage with just under six minutes until halftime.
But the Razorbacks stayed in contention thorough the efforts of Fortson and Washington. The duo combined for 17 points in the frame, including 3-of-5 shooting from the floor by Fortson. The game was tied 30-30 with three minutes remaining in the first half, but Ole Miss closed with a 9-4 spurt to lead 39-34 at the break.
Sophomore Murphy Holloway, who saw added minutes in the absence of the injured Reginald Buckner, tallied a team-high 19 points and 17 rebounds in the loss. He had 11 points and 13 rebounds in the first half alone.
"As everybody knows, I've been down," he said. "I felt like I needed to play hard for my team to win. I thought we played hard, but didn't make the plays down the stretch."
Warren followed with 17 points. Eniel Polynice notched 15 points and seven rebounds. Ole Miss shot 38 percent for the game compared to 48 percent for Arkansas.
The Rebels were only 27 percent (6-of-22) in 3-point attempts, though they won the rebounding battle 45-32. Ole Miss was 9-of-13 from the free throw line. Arkansas, however, was 23-of-27 from the charity stripe.
Arkansas had four players surpass double digits. Washington finished the day with 22 points and 11 rebounds, while Marshawn Powell added 19 points and six rebounds. Fortson had 10 points in 27 minutes.
"We're very fortunate to come down here and have a chance to win the game," Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mississippi. They could easily have been undefeated coming into tonight. I'm proud of our guys. The second half was tremendous."
Ole Miss returns to action Tuesday, as they trip to Lexington for a nationally-televised meeting with No. 2 Kentucky at 6 p.m.
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