FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas was nothing more than road kill when it stepped outside of Bud Walton Arena for much of its first three seasons under coach Mike Anderson.
But the Razorbacks have quickly become road warriors this month.
And the latest conquest has made them a serious contender for an NCAA Tournament berth.
Arkansas swept the season series against 17th-ranked Kentucky by collecting another overtime win, this one coming in a 71-67 victory in Rupp Arena on Thursday night. It was the program’s first road win at Rupp Arena since the 1994 national championship season and Arkansas’ third straight in the series.
It also provided the Razorbacks (19-9, 8-7 in Southeastern Conference) with a much-needed boost for its postseason resume with three games remaining in the regular season. Arkansas, which went 2-6 to open SEC play, has won six of its past seven games. Three of the wins have come on the road.
“This was very big,” Arkansas guard Kikko Haydar said on Arkansas’ postgame radio show. “Just an amazing deal right now.”
Haydar helped the Razorbacks secure the win by knocking down two free throws in the final seconds of overtime. He was part of a team that went 16-for-16 performance from the free-throw line Thursday.
Arkansas guard Ky Madden was 8-for-8, including two key free throws that tied the game at 60-60 with 29 seconds left in regulation. Forward Coty Clarke, who blocked Kentucky’s final shot in regulation, also went 6-for-6 from the line. He knocked down four free throws as part of his seven-point overtime.
Kentucky (21-7, 11-4), meanwhile, went 12-for-22 from the free-throw line.
The misses kept the Wildcats from completing a second-half comeback against Arkansas. The Razorbacks – who had suffered 23- and 31-point losses in its two previous trips to Kentucky – set the pace in the first half. Arkansas jumped out to as much as a 11-point advantage, led 37-30 at the break, and remained on top of Kentucky until late in the second half.
The Wildcats – who outrebounded Arkansas 47-38 and grabbed a season-high 26 offensive rebounds – took their first lead since the opening minutes when Willie Cauley-Stein (16 points, 13 rebounds), followed a missed shot with a dunk. But Kentucky couldn’t finish off the Razorbacks in regulation, missing 3 of 4 free throws late and committing a turnover to help Arkansas force the overtime.
“They got frustrated and they got a little tired,” Anderson said during his postgame radio interview. “We did a good job just hanging in there, hanging in there. I told our guys ,’Let’s hang in there. Even when we were down two, we get a stop and Ky goes to the free-throw line and makes the free throws and we stop them and we get them to overtime.”
Once there, the Razorbacks took advantage of the opportunity and topped the ‘Cats once again.
Clarke knocked down a 3-pointer to give the Razorbacks the lead in overtime. Then, after a Kentucky basket, forward Bobby Portis’ tip-in off a missed shot helped Arkansas maintain it. Haydar’s free throws with 17 seconds left were the final points in Arkansas’ third win in Rupp Arena.
“I thought in the overtime we got all the rebounds, we got the offensive rebounds in the overtime and loose balls in the regulation and the overtime,” Anderson said. “Just a gutty performance by our guys.”
Michael Qualls, who won the first meeting with a two-handed dunk with 0.2 seconds left in overtime, led the Razorbacks with 14 points Thursday. Madden (12), Clarke (11) and Anthlon Bell (10) also reached double figures for Arkansas, which shot 41.4 percent.
Anderson improved to 4-2 against Kentucky in his coaching career, including a 3-1 mark at Arkansas.
The Razorbacks also improved to 3-5 in SEC road games this season. The three conference road victories are the most for an Arkansas team since 2006, when former coach Stan Heath’s group went 3-5.
The win sets up an important race to the finish for the Razorbacks, who play home games against Georgia (Saturday) and Ole Miss (March 5). Arkansas closes the regular season at Alabama on March 8.
“We’re excited,” Haydar said during his radio interview. “We have another very good team coming into our place and they’re third in the league right now. They’re ahead of us. Coach always talks about the conference being a race. They’re ahead of us in the race so we’ve got to beat the team ahead of us.”