FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said his team was out of sorts offensively Saturday, struggling to get into rhythm against Northwestern State.
But there was good news for Anderson and Arkansas.
The Demons had even more trouble against the Razorbacks.
Arkansas turned in one of its best defensive performances of the season during a 79-61 win against Northwestern State. The Razorbacks held the nation’s second-highest scoring team 27 points below its season average, forcing the Demons into their worst shooting night in front of 9,476 in Bud Walton Arena.
BJ Young led Arkansas with 26 points, 13 rebounds and 7 assists, while guard Mardracus Wade added 17 points, 6 assists and 4 steals. It helped Arkansas (8-4) collect its fourth straight win as nonconference play inches closer to the end.
“You’ve got to remember Northwestern State is a team that averaged 88 points a game,” Anderson said. “They played against some pretty decent teams. So for us to hold them … I’ve got to compliment our guys being there defensively.”
The effort was vital in a game that offered little resemblance to what was expected between teams combining to average nearly 170 points. Instead, the crowd watched a game that took on a sloppy feel in the first half with 18 combined turnovers, a plethora of Arkansas fouls, and plenty of missed shots by the Demons (5-4).
Northwestern State, which was shooting 48.5 percent from the field, went 3-for-17 (17.6 percent) in the opening minutes and 8-for-31 (25.8 percent) in the first half.
The shooting woes helped Arkansas lead throughout the half, although the Razorbacks weren’t much better offensively aside from Wade. The junior went 6-for-7 from the field, while the rest of the Razorbacks were 8 for 27 (29.6 percent).
“He was everywhere on the court,” Young said. “He was assisting. He was knocking his shot down. … He was pushing the ball and getting steals in the open court. He helped keep the whole team’s energy up because it was kind of slow at first.”
Wade scored 14 of his 16 points in the half and his final bucket helped the Razorbacks grind their way to a 36-29 lead.
“We weren’t in rhythm, we weren’t clicking like we normally are clicking,” Anderson said. “But at the same time, I think Northwestern State had a lot to do with that. They wanted to slow us down with a zone. A lot of times we did a great job of executing against it. Then at times we didn’t.”
Arkansas managed to push its lead to 12 points early in the second half, but began to falter largely because of its foul troubles. The Razorbacks committed 26 personal fouls Saturday night, giving Northwestern State a large advantage at the line.
The Demons missed 16 attempts but still went 26-for-42 from the free-throw line while Arkansas was just 10-for-13. The extra opportunities helped Northwestern State close to within six points at 59-53 with 7:56 remaining.
“That’s the negative that I’m going to come away from this game with,” Anderson said about the free-throw attempts. “We put them on the line too much.”
But Arkansas — which has struggled to close games most of the season — shrugged it off and took charge down the stretch to wrap up another win.
Young led the Razorbacks on a 10-1 run that helped them push their lead back to double digits. He scored four points during the spurt and also dumped a pass into center Hunter Mickelson for a dunk. Guard Rickey Scott capped the spurt with an impressive move on the baseline, which resulted in a reverse layup and 69-54 lead.
“We regrouped out of a timeout,” Young said. “Coach Anderson and the staff helped us keep our heads up and told us not to panic. The home crowd was behind us, so it was easy to get back out and make plays.”
Said Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy: “We had two turnovers and boom, boom. It was two quick buckets off of that and we never could get anything going.”
Young scored 15 of his 26 points in the second half. He and Mickelson both set career highs with 13 rebounds, helping the Hogs outrebound the Demons 57-41.
The Razorbacks eventually opened up a 20-point lead at 79-59 before Anderson pulled his starters with roughly two minutes remaining. Arkansas outscored Northwestern State 20-8 over the final 7:56 on Saturday night.
“I always say teams may be with us for the first three-quarters of the game,” Anderson said. “But I think, because of our bench and our depth and hopefully conditioning it pays off for us. (Saturday night), I thought we were focused from the start of the horn to the end of the horn. That’s a step for this team.”
Arkansas now has another week off to prepare for its next game against Delaware State. It will be the Razorbacks’ final nonconference game before opening the 18-game Southeastern Conference schedule at Texas A&M on Jan. 9.
“We’ve won four in a row,” Mickelson said. “We’ve just got to keep it up.”