FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guard Michael Qualls and the Razorbacks didn’t forget what happened the last time they enjoyed an emotional win at Kentucky.
They followed it with a dismal January outing at Georgia, where any good feelings about the upset quickly vanished. The sophomore believes Arkansas’ downfall was clear in a disappointing performance: “We were satisfied.”
Qualls said that wasn’t the case in Bud Walton Arena on Saturday.
Arkansas followed its road win at Kentucky with another important performance, beating Georgia 87-75 in front of an announced crowd of 18,547. Forward Coty Clarke scored a career-high 23 points and Qualls added 20 as Arkansas salvaged a split of the season series against the Bulldogs and, more importantly, moved one step closer to securing a spot in the NCAA Tournament field.
The Razorbacks (20-9, 9-7 in SEC) claimed their seventh victory in the past eight games, getting to the 20-win mark for the first time since 2007-08. Arkansas also moved into a two-team tie for fourth place in the SEC standings with Tennessee.
“As a coach you worry,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “I always talk about having short-term memory, and I know as young kids they’re all looking at TV and hearing the prognosticators saying this, social network and all that stuff, you know they’re seeing all that. As a coach you try to do your best to keep your kids focused on the task at hand, and I thought for most part our guys did.”
Arkansas avoided any letdown and got even with Georgia (16-12, 10-6 in SEC), which has been the surprise of the conference this season. The Bulldogs entered the game in third place in the SEC standings and had won six of their past seven games. They tested the Razorbacks with a blistering start, too.
Georgia made 13 of their first 16 shots, including a 4-for-4 performance behind the 3-point line by guard Kenny Gaines (team-high 25 points). It helped Georgia take a 35-28 lead, but Arkansas didn’t panic.
Instead, the Razorbacks tightened up defensively, forced some turnovers, got out in transition and put together a 16-2 run that gave them the lead for good.
“I think our defense kind disrupted them,” Anderson said. “We were playing a man to man and they were doing a good job of attacking us. And so we switched to a zone and made them shoot jump shots. We did a good job out of the zone and we ran out of our zone. I thought we ran out pretty good and attacked the basket on them.”
The Razorbacks took the lead when Clarke threw a lob pass to Qualls for a two-handed dunk that fired up the sellout crowd. Qualls was fouled on the bucket, completed the 3-point play and the Razorbacks were on top 36-35.
Georgia answered with a basket on the other end, but guard Rickey Scott helped the Razorbacks regain the lead on the next possession. The senior, who hadn’t played in the past three games, made a 3-pointer to give the Hogs a 39-37 lead.
It was Scott’s first field goal since the Alabama game on Feb. 5. It was his second 3-pointer of the season. The other came in a win against UT-Martin on Dec. 19.
“I know I can hit threes,” said Scott, who finished with 5 points and 3 rebounds in 10 minutes. “I can shoot threes. It felt good. I didn’t think Bobby (Portis) was going to pass it out there. I felt he could still get a foul, but I hit the three and helped the team. It built my confidence up.”
It also proved to be the final lead change Saturday. Arkansas took a 44-37 lead into the locker room and continued to dictate pace in the second half. The Razorbacks’ lead eventually ballooned to 60-45 when Alandise Harris scored with 12:05 left.
“I thought their defense just finally got to us,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “Just sometimes the result of their press is not in a direct turnover or a steal, sometimes it just changes the rhythm or wears you down.”
Of course, it wasn’t easy the rest of the way. That has rarely been the case for the Razorbacks this season and proved true once again against Georgia.
Arkansas went into an offensive funk over the next six minutes, while Georgia snapped out of its struggles to make things interesting. The Bulldogs chipped Arkansas’ lead down to five points at 65-60 with 4:43 remaining, but could never get any closer to the Razorbacks.
The key sequence came when Arkansas guard Mardracus Wade hit a jumper, Georgia turned the ball over, and Ky Madden knocked down a 3-pointer to make it a 10-point game again. The Razorbacks went 11-for-12 from the free-throw line over the final 2:11 to finish off the Bulldogs and win their fifth straight game.
“We can’t let that game Thursday night have a hangover in your head playing a good Georgia team,” said Clarke, who topped the career high of 20 points he set in his first game as a Razorbacks. “We knew we had to come out and get this win because they beat us at their house. So we knew they were going to try to upset us after we beat Kentucky. So we had to come down and just play good basketball.”
Arkansas accomplished it, setting up a big week to end the regular season.
The Razorbacks will play their home finale against Ole Miss on Wednesday, then wrap up the SEC schedule at Alabama on Saturday. Arkansas — which opened SEC play 2-6 — can climb as high as No. 2 in the standings after Kentucky’s loss at South Carolina. The top four seeds will earn double byes in the SEC Tournament.
Qualls said Arkansas’ mantra is “stay greedy, stay hungry.”
Anderson said the Georgia win is more proof Arkansas is accomplishing it as they continue to make a late-season push for the NCAA Tournament.
“All we’ve got to do is keep doing what we’re doing,” Anderson said. “Winning games. That would take care of itself. I’ve always been wired like that. I’m a day-to-day guy. … We know the next game at hand is Ole Miss. Those are the only things we can control. To me, more importantly, that’s what we can control. But if we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll be there.”