FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson celebrated his 54th birthday by telling his team the only thing he wanted was a win Thursday night.
Anderson got his wish during the Razorbacks’ 72-43 win against Savannah State in front of an announced crowd of 5,654 in Bud Walton Arena. But not before watching the Razorbacks struggle in the first half against an opponent that carried a six-game losing streak into Fayetteville and hadn’t beaten a Division I opponent this season.
Arkansas — fresh off a stretch of games against major conference opponents — turned in a lackluster performance throughout much of its 20th straight win in Bud Walton Arena. The Razorbacks scored a season-low 27 points in the first half and couldn’t open a double-digit lead against Savannah State (2-9) until midway through the second half. The game eventually turned into one of Arkansas’ most lopsided wins of the season, but it couldn’t overshadow the sloppy start.
“We were playing with no energy. There was no effort,” Anderson said. “They were controlling tempo. It just seemed like we were playing on our heels in terms of attacking the zone and getting offensive rebounds. We shoot it, there were no offensive rebounds. We weren’t going to the glass. We were stagnant.”
It was surprising, considering Savannah State came to Bud Walton Arena with the dubious distinction of being the lowest-rated team in Division I. The Tigers were No. 351 in the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index (RPI), which is a tool that helps determine a team’ strength when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.
Arkansas, meanwhile, entered the night at No. 26 thanks to an eight-game stretch that included opponents like Clemson, Gonzaga, Minnesota and California. The Razorbacks were one of the nation’s highest-scoring teams as well, averaging 86.8 points behind their up-tempo attack that thrived on pressure and turnovers.
But it was hard to tell the teams apart for 20 minutes Thursday night.
“We took them lightly because it’s Savannah State,” forward Bobby Portis said.
It showed. The two teams nearly combined for more turnovers (18) than field goals (19) in the first half. Savannah State scored the game’s first points, tied it at 12-12, and only let the Razorbacks hold a 27-25 lead at halftime.
It could’ve been even worse for Arkansas if not for guard Ky Madden, who scored 13 of his career-high 21 points in the first half on 6 of 7 shooting. The rest of the Razorbacks struggled, managing only 14 points on 4 of 21 shooting.
“I just feel like we came out dead,” Madden said. “We didn’t come out with the energy and the effort that we normally play with.”
It also didn’t help that Arkansas’ leading scorer — and one of its most energetic players — watched the whole thing from the bench.
Guard Michael Qualls did not play in the first half after being late for a practice last week, according to Anderson. The sophomore’s absence was felt. So was his return.
Qualls started the second half and joined Madden and Portis (10 points, 11 rebounds) in helping Arkansas get on track and pull away from the Tigers. He got to the free-throw line by driving to the basket on the first possession in the second half and, although he missed both free throws, injected the Hogs with energy.
Qualls added a dunk, altered a shot, then blocked another during a 17-4 run that helped the Hogs open a double-digit lead.
“As soon as he came back in, he got two major blocks,” said Arkansas guard Rickey Scott, who also chipped in with seven points in 13 minutes. “So that was a change of energy right there. We definitely missed that in the first half.”
Arkansas’ lead continued to grow throughout the rest of the game. Qualls added the final exclamation point when he knocked down a 3-pointer in the final seconds, helping him finish with 7 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and a block in 16 minutes.
The Razorbacks outscored Savannah State 45-18 in the second half and Anderson said their improved intensity on defense and the glass was key.
Arkansas forced 19 turnovers, held Savannah State to 31.4 percent (16 of 51) from the field and outrebounded the Tigers 48-35. The 43 points were the fewest the Razorbacks have allowed in a game this season.
“I kind of knew that we could hang with them for a few minutes,” Savannah State coach Horace Broadnax said. “But just the relentless pressure (Arkansas) puts on you … He made us feel uncomfortable for most of the game.
“We were able to make shots, but once fatigue sets in it was difficult to execute.”
The Razorbacks, meanwhile, shot 43.5 percent after just 35.7 percent in the first half. But they struggled from long range (5 of 19) and from the free-throw line (13 of 26) in their final game before taking a week-long break for exams.
It wasn’t a pretty performance by any means. But Anderson said the only thing that mattered in the end was the second half performance that led to a birthday win.
“We got them playing the way we want to play in the second half,” Anderson said.