FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas found the perfect solution for its Southeastern Conference problems in Bud Walton Arena on Saturday.
The Razorbacks played an opponent that had lost 15 straight conference games.
Arkansas enjoyed its biggest conference win of the season, defeating Auburn 86-67 in front of an announced crowd of 17,034. Guard Ky Madden scored a career-high 24 points — including 19 in the second half — to lead the Razorbacks.
Forward Bobby Portis fell one shy of his best with 18 points.
The duo helped Arkansas avoid falling even further into an SEC hole while improving to 7-0 against Auburn under coach Tony Barbee. It also was Arkansas’ largest win in the series since dating back to an 84-64 win in 2006.
“It was a big win and we really needed the win, just for our sake,” Madden said. “For us personally and for our season.”
Arkansas, which returned home after road losses to Georgia and Tennessee, accomplished what was expected against the struggling Tigers.
The Razorbacks (13-6, 2-4) never trailed Saturday, although they had to survive a six-minute scoring drought in the first half. Arkansas fought through it to build a double-digit lead at halftime, shot 65 percent from the field in the second half and ran away from the Tigers in the closing minutes.
“The wear and tear was very evident in this game,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “I thought we were in attack mode and the thing I was most proud of with our guys, they did a good job of finishing. We hadn’t finished well in many games, but I thought we were assertive and aggressive, making the right plays at the right time.”
Arkansas raced out to an 8-0 lead in the early minutes thanks to 3-pointers from Madden and Anthlon Bell. The Razorbacks couldn’t cruise, though, after missing nine straight shots over a six-minute stretch. Auburn — which didn’t make its first field goal until the 12:31 mark — managed to tie the game at 8.
The Razorbacks never lost the lead, however. Forward Jacorey Williams came off the bench to end the shooting slump with a layup off of an offensive rebound. Auburn (8-9, 0-6) tied the game with another layup on its next possession, then Portis scored inside to give the Razorbacks the lead for good at 12-10.
Portis, who enjoyed his best performance in SEC play, soon added 10 more points during a 17-3 spurt that helped Arkansas open up a 31-16 lead. It helped Arkansas enjoy some much-needed breathing room, taking a 36-25 lead to the locker room.
“I met with (Arkansas assistant Melvin) Watkins and coach Watkins just told me that for us to be successful, I need to go on the block and go to work on the block instead of shooting long twos,” Portis said. “I tried to work on that against Auburn.”
Portis’ 14 first-half points were the highlight of an ugly half. The teams combined for more fouls (29) and turnovers (19) than field goals (18). Arkansas shot 31.4 percent. Auburn — which started 0-for-7 — shot 25.9 percent.
“I thought we were a little inept on the offensive end of the floor on some good looks that we typically make,” Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. “We couldn’t — we made our run but we couldn’t just crack through with the easy opportunities that we did miss, from behind the arc and in the paint at the rim.”
Arkansas had much more success with Madden leading the way after the break.
The junior, who entered the game averaging a team-high 16 points a game in SEC play, continued his string of impressive performances. Madden didn’t miss a shot in the second half, going 4-for-4 from the field and 9-for-9 from the free-throw line.
He topped the 20-point mark for the third time this season and scored in double figures for the seventh straight game.
“He continues to play at a high level,” Anderson said. “His confidence continues to rise each and every game.”
Madden wasn’t alone. Guard Fred Gulley III scored eight of his 10 points in the second half. Bell chipped in nine points as well Saturday, stepping out of his shooting slump to go 3-for-5 from behind the 3-point line. Even Michael Qualls got involved, recording two crowd-pleasing dunks to step away from his SEC shooting woes.
Auburn cut Arkansas’ lead to eight points on four different occasions in the second half, but couldn’t crawl any closer. Madden knocked down a 3-pointer at the 12:39 mark to give the Razorbacks a double-digit lead for good.
Chris Denson led Auburn with 18 points, while KT Harrell added 17. But the Tigers shot 36.2 percent in the loss and committed 18 turnovers.
Arkansas shot 65.4 percent in the second half and finished at 45.9 percent in the game. Gulley credited the ball movement for the success.
“The ball never got stagnant,” Gulley said. “There was never a time whenever the ball was getting stopped. We didn’t have any ball stoppers. When somebody was open, we hit them. People made plays (Saturday). It was really good to come back home, play in front of the home crowd and get everybody involved.”
The Razorbacks had 21 assists on its 28 field goals Saturday.
Arkansas returns to action at 6 p.m. Tuesday against Missouri. The game will be televised by ESPNU.