FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson believed his team had a lot of good basketball left to play despite missing the NCAA Tournament.
The Razorbacks didn’t exactly turn in a clean and crisp performance throughout its National Invitation Tournament opener against Indiana State on Tuesday night. But it was more than enough to help Arkansas enjoy its first postseason win in six years.
Arkansas beat Indiana State 91-71 in front of an announced crowd of 7,697 in Bud Walton Arena, rebounding from losses to Alabama and South Carolina that ultimately cost the Razorbacks a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Guard Anthlon Bell led the way with another career night, scoring a game-high 28 points. Five other Razorbacks scored in double figures, too, including forward Alandise Harris (13 points, 6 rebounds).
It pushes Arkansas (22-11) into the second round of the NIT, although the Razorbacks won’t know their next opponent until late tonight when California and Utah Valley meet in the first round in Berkeley, Calif. Arkansas will host the second-round game if seventh-seed Valley wins or will travel to second-seed California for a rematch of the 2013 Maui Invitational opener last November.
“All we want to do is be consistent and get better,” Anderson said. “I think that’s the team we saw that made the tremendous run in the SEC, winning eight out of nine games. That’s the team we saw. It’s your first game in the tournament, so I’m glad to see our guys come out with super energy. We’re trending in the right direction.”
Anderson admitted he wasn’t sure which team he would see after the disappointment of missing the NCAA field. Bell helped answer the question early.
The sophomore, who scored 23 points in Arkansas’ 110-80 win against Ole Miss in the final home game of the regular season, continued his hot shooting in home games. Anderson plugged him into the starting lineup on what he described as a “gut feeling” and Bell responded by scoring Arkansas’ first 10 points.
“I don’t know,” Bell said about his success. “It surprises me, too. I owe it all to the offense. The offense is working good for me. People are looking for me.”
Bell continued to get open in the first half and knocked down shots. He had 15 of Arkansas’ 25 points at one time. Bell finished with 18 points in the first half.
“He got going and they rewarded him,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “He took advantage of it. He was hot from the start and never let up.”
It took the rest of the Razorbacks some time to follow suit against Indiana State (23-11), which was playing in the NIT for the second straight season and entered the tournament with nine road wins this season. Arkansas had an obvious advantage on the boards, but couldn’t make shots in the early going.
Freshman Bobby Portis endured the biggest struggles, going 0-for-7 with most of the misses from close range in the first half. Forward Coty Clarke also was 1-for-7 in the half, while the Razorbacks shot just 35.3 percent as a team before the break.
But behind Bell — and a late surge by guard Michael Qualls — Arkansas was able to take a six-point lead to the locker room. Qualls scored six straight, including a dunk on off a pass from Clarke. Then, guard Ky Madden recorded a steal and was fouled with 0.9 seconds left. His two free throws made it 37-31 at the break.
“Our guys came out with tenacious energy on defense,” Anderson said. “We were really getting after it against an Indiana State team that’s a really good basketball team. We were deflecting passes, getting in the passing lanes.”
The momentum continued in the second half, when Arkansas scored 10 straight points to build a double-digit lead. The Razorbacks pushed it to as many as 19 points midway through the half before Indiana State began to crawl back.
The Sycamores cut the deficit under 10 when point guard Jake Odum knocked down a 3-pointer to make it 69-61 with 6:18 left. But the drama was short-lived.
“They didn’t wear down,” said Odum, who had 11 points and 6 assists in his final game. “They’re tough. They stayed composed, kept pushing us.”
In the end, Arkansas’ depth and athleticism proved too much for Indiana State.
The Razorbacks went on a 20-3 spurt after watching Indiana State trim the lead and wrapped up the win. Bell put the finishing touches on the performance, too, by knocking down two more 3-pointers before leaving the floor to an ovation.
Bell finished 11-for-13 from the field, including 6-for-8 behind the 3-point line.
His final bucket helped him extend his career-high to 28 points.
“It’s great to see,” Anderson said. “I think he’s staying humble with it this time. Early in the year, he started off, and I thought he kind of starting feeling himself a little bit. Then he struggled. It’s good to see him stick with his routines.”
Arkansas shot 64.5 percent in the second half and finished the game at 49.2 percent (32-for-65). In addition to Bell and Harris, Qualls (11 points), Madden (11), Clarke (10) and Portis (10) scored in double figures Tuesday night.
Arkansas also outrebounded the smaller Sycamores 46-32. Portis had a career-high 13 rebounds and set the school’s freshman rebounding record in the win.
It didn’t come in the NCAA Tournament. But Clarke and the Razorbacks believe their win in the NIT opener was a clear sign they’re motivated to keep playing.
“Some people aren’t playing right now,” Clarke said. “So we’re fortunate to be playing even if it isn’t the NCAA. We’re just glad to be here and you’re still playing for a national championship. There’s five games and we’re down one. …
“We just want to finish strong.”