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FAYETTEVILLE — Alabama’s athletics director and its coaches’ wives were among a large group who made the trek to Arkansas on Wednesday to watch the Crimson Tide clinch their first SEC title since 2002.
The Razorbacks had other plans. In the first top-25 matchup at Bud Walton Arena in 23 years, No. 20 Arkansas dominated the second half and cruised to an 81-66 win over No. 6 Alabama, sending the travel party back to Tuscaloosa empty-handed.
“They were ready to come celebrate on our floor, and we took that… That was disrespectful,” freshman Moses Moody said. “That’s how I felt, that’s how we felt. There ain’t no disrespect without retaliation.”
The 15-point win after losing to the Crimson Tide by 31 last month was a 46-point swing. That is the largest single-season swing in a revenge game in favor of Arkansas since 1993, when it had a 61-point swing against Mississippi State, according to HogStats.
It was the Razorbacks’ eighth straight SEC win, which is their second-longest since joining the conference – trailing only an 11-game streak in 1994. The win also moved them into sole possession of second place in the SEC standings, one game ahead of LSU.
Following the game, head coach Eric Musselman and the players celebrated in front of the student section. The celebration continued in the locker room, where the animated second-year coach was dosed with water. He had to change shirts and his hair was still wet when he met with the media over Zoom.
“I like that polo, I hope it’s not ruined,” Musselman said. “They probably didn’t order another kids youth XL for me, so I’m praying there was no Gatorade on that dog-gone thing.”
Not only did it keep the streak alive and help in the standings, but Wednesday’s win was also the Razorbacks’ second over a top-10 team this season – something they hadn’t done since 2008-09 – and gave them another all-important Quadrant 1 win for the NET rankings.
It all started when Davonte Davis knocked down a jumper on the game’s first possession, but then Arkansas had one of its usual offensive lulls and went nearly four minutes before making another shot.
Luckily for them, the Razorbacks also played lockdown defense and never allowed Alabama to lead by more than two. That’s why they were able to quickly take control of the game.
A layup by Moody – who scored a game-high 24 points – ended the drought and then Davis got the lead back when he grabbed a rebound and took it coast-to-coast for a three-point play. Those plays were the start of an 11-0 run.
The Crimson Tide, the SEC’s best three-point shooting team at 36.0 percent, missed their first nine attempts beyond the arc. Meanwhile. Arkansas pushed its lead to 12 on a four-point play by Moody and Connor Vanover dunk at the 11:47 mark.
“I thought we did a good job kind of taking way the three, especially the three early in the game or at least not allowing their premier three-point shooters to take a lot of attempts,” Musselman said. “That was something that we really focused on over the last four or five days that we got together.”
However, midway through the half, Jahvon Quinerly finally knocked down a three and it seemed to take the lid off the basket for Alabama.
The Razorbacks managed to take a double-digit lead three more times over the next five minutes, but John Petty Jr. made a pair of threes with a hand in his face to start the climb out of that hole.
It was Jordan Bruner who did the most damage, though. Coming into the game averaging less than one three-pointer per game and shooting just 30.8 percent, he made four straight deep balls in the final three minutes of the half.
The fourth of those came just before the buzzer, and after JD Notae had made one on the other end of the floor, to pull Alabama within 39-38 at the break.
The 6-foot-10 graduate transfer from Yale knocking down threes wasn’t ideal, but – similar to the last few games – it was something Musselman was willing to live with because he wanted to make sure to limit the sharpshooters.
“All of Bruner’s shots and all of (Alex) Reese’s shots and the two that (Juwan) Gary took…those are all on me,” Musselman said. “Not one player was at fault for one three ball that was made from those three guys.”
The story of the first half was fouls. The two teams combined for 25, with Alabama committing 15 of them. Jaden Shackelford had three of them and then fellow starters Herbert Jones and Bruner picked up their third fouls within the first four minutes of the second half.
That was the result of Arkansas consistently getting into the paint and putting pressure on the Crimson Tide’s defense.
“We felt like attacking the rim was something we really wanted to do,” Musselman said. “We didn’t want to settle. We didn’t want to jack up threes. We didn’t want quick shots.”
When play resumed, Arkansas came out sluggish and the Crimson Tide capitalized by scoring the first seven points.
Shackelford made a three to start the scoring and give them their first lead since early in the first half. When Bruner went coast-to-coast for a layup after a rebound to make it 45-39 less than two minutes in, Musselman called a timeout.
“I think the biggest message was, ‘Hey look, they made a run. We knew they were going to make a run,’ and don’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Musselman said. “We’ve got to get back to what we worked on the last few days, which is defend the three, run them off the three-point line.”
It seemed to settle the Razorbacks down and they started feeding Jaylin Williams on the block. After they missed their first four shots of the half, the freshman big man made three straight buckets to get Arkansas back in it.
Those shots ended up sparking a 17-2 run, which which Williams scored 10 points.
“He’s a really good passer, so that was really important,” Musselman said. “We knew he was a willing passer, a good passer. He’s got good vision. And they put a smaller guy on him, so when they put (Joshua) Primo on him, I felt like that’s a matchup we had to go to.”
Williams finished with a career-high 13 points – marking the first time he’s hit double figures during his collegiate career – and grabbed eight rebounds, plus drew another two charges. Perhaps his most impressive statistic, though, was the fact that Arkansas outscored Alabama by 30 during his 22 minutes of action.
“If you look at the stat sheet, you’re not going to see everything that J-Will brings to the team,” Moody said. “He does all the dirty work, all the little things and that shows with plus-minus ratios and things like that.”
At one point during the 17-2 run, there was a loose ball that bounced off of several hands before Moody finally secured it. He quickly got it to Justin Smith, who threw down an electrifying dunk that sent the pandemic-sellout crowd of 4,400 into a frenzy.
“When the ball’s on the floor, that’s just what you do,” Moody said. “It’s a 50/50 chance and I like to tilt those odds in our favor when I’m on the floor. … Never afraid to get dirty. Do what we’ve got to do to win.”
The play was part of Smith’s third double-double of the season, as he finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds. Jalen Tate and Notae each had 12 points apiece, as well, giving the Razorbacks five players in double figures.
Alabama managed to keep it within single digits for about four more minutes, but a free throw by Moody after a technical on Petty and during another 9-0 spurt put Arkansas up by double digits for good with 6:35 remaining.
Getting to the free throw line was a theme throughout the game for the Razorbacks. They were called for 14 fewer fouls (32-18) and took 35 more free throws (43-8) than the Crimson Tide.
“We have got to learn to defend without fouling,” Alabama head coach Nate Oats said. “We had a season-high in fouls, a season-high 43 free throws (for Arkansas).
“You can’t put them at the line 43 times and expect to win the game. We need to do a better job on the defensive end, we need to do a better job on the offensive end.”
Frustrations about that discrepancy seemed to spill over onto the court. In addition to Petty’s technical, Quinerly and Tate received technical fouls for apparently jawing at each other when Arkansas was up 14 with less than four minutes left.
“I told the guys after the game tonight that I thought we had a lot of guys worrying about the officiating,” Oats said. “They have no control over the officiating. If you worry about stuff you can’t control then you are not going to be very good about things you do have control over. We were’t very good at some of that stuff tonight.”
Two more technicals were called at the 1:01 mark, as Petty disagreed with a foul called on him and was immediately ejected. During the chaos that ensued, Tate also picked up his second technical and was ejected.
“I just want to put that on record that at the end of the game JT was talking to JD when he was ejected,” Moody said. “He didn’t say anything to the other team, didn’t say anything to the refs. I mean, it wasn’t any cuss words or something. I’m just going to leave it there, make that known.”
Arkansas was eventually able to dribble the closing seconds off the clock to finish its second revenge game of the month. (It also beat Missouri after losing to the Tigers by 13.)
The Razorbacks will try to make it 3 for 3 when it welcomes LSU to Bud Walton Arena for their final scheduled home game of the season Saturday afternoon. The Tigers beat Arkansas by 16 in Baton Rouge.
Tip off is scheduled for 1 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN2.