FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson is confident his 2013-14 team will be much improved behind the 3-point line after last season’s struggles.
Arkansas guard Anthlon Bell made sure the Razorbacks got off to a good start from long range in the season opener Friday night.
The sophomore’s strong shooting performance led Arkansas to a 99-65 win against SIU-Edwardsville in front of an announced crowd of 6,543 in Bud Walton Arena. Bell scored a career-high 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting from the field, which included a 5-for-6 effort from behind the 3-point line.
He helped Arkansas shoot shot 50 percent from long range (8-for-16) in the opener.
“That’s what he does,” Anderson said. “He knows what he’s capable of doing.”
There’s reason for Anderson’s confidence. The Memphis native showed plenty of promise during his freshman season, making a team-high 33 3-pointers. But he was part of a poor-shooting team that shot just 30 percent from long range.
So Anderson counted Bell as one of Arkansas’ key players this season because of his potential as a scorer - especially behind the 3-point line. He wasted no time making an impact on Friday night.
Bell made his first 3-pointer at the 17:28 mark to help the Razorbacks open up a 5-0 lead. He made two more 3-pointers late in the half, which pushed Arkansas out to a 56-27 halftime advantage. Bell had 12 points in the first half.
“We know we have a lot of big guys now,” Bell said about Arkansas’ improved frontcourt. “There’s a lot of people that are going to focus on that. So we know we need somebody that can come down and knock down shots.”
Bell continued to play that role in the second half with two more 3-pointers.
Five 3-pointers equaled a career high, which Bell set against Georgia last February.
“That’s a great shooting night right there,” Arkansas forward Alandise Harris said. “It doesn’t really get any better than that. Five for six. That’s big.”
But Bell wasn’t the only Arkansas player who enjoyed a big night.
Anderson has promised more balance from his team this season and it showed in the opener with four others joining him in double figures. Qualls scored 16 points and Alandise Harris added 15 in his Arkansas debut. Mardracus Wade (11) and Coty Clarke (10) also reached double figures in the Arkansas rout.
Harris and Wade played a key role in helping Arkansas get over a slow start, coming off the bench to help ignite a 31-4 run that buried the Cougars.
Harris scored seven quick points during the spurt, while Wade added five. They helped the Razorbacks take a commanding 38-14 lead with 5:52 left in the half.
“It was 10-10 and then things went south,” SIUE coach Lennox Forrester said. “That’s how Arkansas plays. They are going to come out with pressure, pressure, and pressure. They just keep coming after you … Our guys didn’t respond very well.”
Harris and Wade were part of an Arkansas bench that scored 47 points Friday night.
“Our bench played big,” Anderson said. “When you get a wave of guys coming in, after another wave of guys, there’s a lot of wear and tear going on with another team. I consider those guys starters. When you talk about Wade and Alandise. … That’s a big-time luxury.”
Clarke and Qualls, meanwhile, had two dunks apiece in the first half.
Clarke’s second came off of a steal and gave Arkansas a 43-16 lead. Qualls followed the senior with the night’s biggest highlight, jumping over 6-foot-10 forward Keaton Jackson for a one-handed slam. The emphatic dunk gave the Razorbacks a 45-16 lead and energized the crowd as Arkansas wrapped up the first half.
“After I got him with the pump fake it was all fair game from there,” Qualls said of his dunk. “The first play of the game I think he blocked my shot, so I had it on my mind. … Attack. That’s what coach preaches. That’s what gets me playing time.”
Said Anderson: “He’s been trying to do it for the last year-and-a-half. (Friday night) he put it together and it’s one of those momentum plays.”
Arkansas did have its 56-27 halftime lead trimmed to 22 points early in the second half, but the Razorbacks settled in and finished the game.
Arkansas led by as many as 38 points and had 11 of its 13 players score. The Razorbacks nearly topped the 100-point mark, but reserve guard Dee Wagner just missed a floater at the buzzer.
Still, Arkansas finished shooting 51.6 percent (33 of 64), while SIUE made 39.1 percent (25 of 64). The Razorbacks forced SIUE to turn the ball over 23 times and outscored the Cougars 33-5 off mistakes Friday night.
The effort pushed Arkansas to its 15th straight home win, which dates back to last season, and the 19th straight win in an opener. The Razorbacks also improved to 20-1 in season openers in Bud Walton Arena.
“When we’re playing that way, a lot of good things take place,” Anderson said of Arkansas’ season-opening effort. “We had a lot of highlights. Our guys gave our fans a real show coming out for the first game with some new guys.”