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Jalen Tate calmly knocked down a pair of free throws in the closing seconds Tuesday night to give Arkansas its first win over Kentucky in seven years.
The point guard was fouled on a put back attempt after grabbing an offensive board and scored the game-winning points sandwiched around a timeout to lift the Razorbacks to an 81-80 victory inside Rupp Arena.
It was a particularly sweep moment for Tate, who grew up just three hours away in Ohio and spent four years at Northern Kentucky – which is only an hour away from Lexington, Ky. – before transferring to Arkansas.
In a game many friends and family circled as soon as he committed to the Razorbacks, Tate distributed 25 tickets and rewarded those who made the trip with a team-high 15 points and the clutch free throws.
“This is the closest I’ve been to home,” Tate said. “That’s all I’m thinking in my head is just the opportunity that I was allowed to be blessed with. I just wanted to win it for my team, honestly.”
Not only did Arkansas snap an eight-game skid in the series and extend its SEC winning streak to five games, but it also took sole possession of third place in the conference by improving to 15-5 overall and 7-4 in SEC play. The Wildcats, meanwhile, inched closer to their first losing season in 32 years by falling to 5-13, 4-7.
It nearly went the other way, though, as Kentucky erased as 12-point deficit in the final six minutes of the game and actually took the lead – its first since the 18:03 mark of the second half – on a three-pointer by Davion Mintz with 14 seconds left.
Instead of calling a timeout to draw up a final play, Arkansas got the ball in quick and Davonte Davis pushed it up the floor and took it to the basket. His shot didn’t fall, but it gave Tate an opportunity to grab the rebound and get to the line.
“Me, as a great transition player, I was trying to get to the rim,” Davis said. “I know if I got it up that my teammates were going to be around the rim, so if it went in or it didn’t — and it didn’t — you see Jalen Tate had my back and he got fouled and knocked down the two free throws.”
Although there were still 4.3 seconds left, the Wildcats never got a shot off, as Davis jumped in front of a pass for a steal to seal the win.
“I think for all of our guys it’s a big win,” head coach Eric Musselman said. “It’s always big to win on the road, it’s always big to win a close game, so I think yeah, everybody is excited.”
Despite coming into the game ranked 306th nationally in three-point shooting, Kentucky was lethal beyond the arc Tuesday night and it started early on.
Star freshman B.J. Boston opened the game with a three on the first possession and the Wildcats made four of their first six attempts from deep.
Connor Vanover helped the Razorbacks stay in it early by scoring seven of their first nine points with a corner three-pointer and a couple of dunks. However, Boston – a 20 percent three-point shooter – made the fourth of those deep balls to put the Wildcats up 21-15.
“Coming off a good game, Connor Vanover, we expected that from him,” Davis said. “He did what we expected. He scored and we dropped the ball off to him and he finished the dunks, and that’s all we needed.”
Arkansas answered that with a 7-0 run capped by a JD Notae three that put it up by one point about midway through the half.
It was the second of four separate one-point leads by the Razorbacks before halftime, but – despite the Wildcats shooting just 31.3 percent from the floor – they could never pull away more than as Kentucky lived at the free throw line.
In the first half alone, the Wildcats went 11 of 17 from the charity stripe, compared to Arkansas’ 3-of-6 showing at the line. That played a factor in the Razorbacks holding just a 36-35 lead at halftime.
“I just felt like in the first half that the aggressor got to the foul line, the aggressor going to the rack, and Kentucky was rewarded for that,” Musselman said. “So I said, ‘We’ve got to tip the scale on the free throws attempted.’ We can’t continue to watch them trot to the foul line, and the only way you can get to the line is to be overly aggressive.”
Musselman’s message about not settling for threes and attacking the paint during the break was well received. The Razorbacks not only out-scored the Wildcats 32-20 in the paint for the game, but they flipped the script at the free throw line.
Arkansas was 15 of 17 from the charity stripe in the second half, while Kentucky was just 5 of 8.
Combine that with Moses Moody – who was limited to only nine minutes in the first half because of foul trouble – heating up and the Razorbacks were finally able to put some distance between themselves and the Wildcats.
Moody made the first of his three second-half three-pointers within the first minute of the half and ended up scoring 11 of his 14 points after halftime.
Another one came during an 11-0 run that seemed like it would put Arkansas up for good, but Kentucky dug out of the double-digit deficit by firing away from beyond the arc.
With five different players making multiple three-pointers, including a career-high four by Boston, the Wildcats finished the game 14 of 26 (53.8 percent) from deep, which was well above their season average of 29.8 percent and easily surpassed their previous best performance of the season (11 of 21 in a double-overtime win over Mississippi State).
“Quite frankly, the game plan was to give up the three,” Musselman said. “Any criticism about them making 14 three-balls can be put squarely on my shoulders and not the players’ shoulders whatsoever. That was the game plan. They executed it. We were willing to live with the three, based on the numbers both in conference play and non-conference play, so all 14 of those, stick them right on my shoulders.”
Even with Kentucky shooting lights out, Arkansas still found itself with a lead down the stretch. It actually led by as many as 12 after Isaiah Jackson picked up a personal foul and technical foul that resulted in four free throws with 6:11 remaining.
Three-point shooting allowed the Wildcats to get back in it, though, with Olivier Sarr – a 7-footer who came into the game 5 of 10 from deep on the season – knocked down his third three-pointer of the night to make it a one-possession game with two minutes left.
Boston – who finished with a game-high 17 points – and Mintz each made a three in the final 30 seconds to give Kentucky the lead, but that set up the aforementioned game-winning free throws by Tate.
“There was no panic whatsoever in the huddles,” Musselman said. “I thought we were well established as far as what we wanted to do. Obviously defending the three, we probably gave up too many, but I never felt a sense of panic even there at the very, very end with our ball club, at any stretch tonight.”
In addition to the 15 and 14 points by Tate and Moody, respectively, Vanover (12) and Notae (11) also scored in double figures for the Razorbacks and all nine players who got on the court scored at least two points.
Arkansas got beat on the boards 42-33, but its rebounds were pretty evenly distributed. Moody and Jaylin Williams led the way with seven, but everyone else – except Desi Sills, who had none – grabbed at least two.
The Razorbacks took care of the basketball, as well. Their six turnovers were the fewest they’ve ever had in a game at Rupp Arena, according to HogStats.com.
“Just a really, really good team win,” Musselman said. “I thought almost everybody on the roster really contributed tonight.”
Musselman and his staff will now shift their focus to No. 10 Missouri, which handed Arkansas its first loss back on Jan. 2. It was an ugly 81-68 defeat in which the Razorbacks made only 3 of 23 layups.
The rematch with the Tigers – who are second in the SEC at 13-3 overall and 6-3 in conference play ahead of Wednesday’s road game at Ole Miss – is scheduled for 3 p.m. CT in Columbia, Mo., and will be televised on ESPN2 or ESPNU.