FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas forward Marshawn Powell noticed something different in the locker room before Tuesday’s game against No. 2 Florida.
It was quiet. It was intense. The Razorbacks understood the opportunity that awaited them against the Southeastern Conference’s top team. So much they didn’t need coach Mike Anderson to say anything to them before they took the court.
“The level of concentration and focus in the locker room was unbelievable,” Powell said. “Coach didn’t even have to do his usual pep up talk. We were already ready.”
It was evident Tuesday night, when Arkansas used a blistering start to ambush Florida during an 80-69 win in front of an announced crowd of 13,059 in Bud Walton Arena. The Razorbacks jumped on top of the Gators — who had been beating Southeastern Conference opponents with ease — by as much as 27 points and did enough down the stretch to remain perfect at home in SEC play.
It helped Arkansas (14-8, 5-4 in SEC) avenge last year’s 30-point home loss to the Gators (18-3, 8-1), which was its worst in Bud Walton Arena history. It finally gave the Hogs a significant win under Anderson, too, beating a team ranked second or higher for the first time since a 104-88 win against No. 2 Auburn on Feb. 24, 1999.
Anderson said before the game his team would have to play close to perfection on both ends of the floor to win. They nearly accomplished it on a memorable night.
“Our guys were wanting to play,” Anderson said. “They wanted to go out and perform well. We had our fans here. We had a national audience.”
Powell set the tone from the opening tip, knocking down a 3-pointer for the second straight game to start the scoring. But unlike the Tennessee win, when the rest of the Razorbacks struggled from long range, Powell’s teammates followed his lead.
Mardracus Wade — who was 4-for-23 from behind the 3-point line in SEC play — knocked down two straight to give the Razorbacks a quick 9-2 lead. BJ Young, Jacorey Williams and Michael Qualls joined in as well. The early barrage of buckets helped the Razorbacks take a surprising 36-13 lead with 9:19 left in the half.
Arkansas was shooting just 24 percent from behind the 3-point line through eight conference games. But the Razorbacks opened 7-for-10 on Tuesday night.
“That’s something that hasn’t been happening on a consistent basis for us,” Anderson said. “But I think we’re a much better shooting team than the stats show. I thought (Tuesday) we got a chance to see some of that.”
But the performance was unexpected against a Florida defense that entered Tuesday’s game holding SEC opponents to just 48.6 points a game. The Gators had been rolling through SEC play, leaning on its stifling defense to suffocate opponents.
Arkansas made 15 of its first 20 shots Tuesday night. The Hogs eventually cooled off late in the half, making one of their final 10 attempts. But they still led 43-27.
“They shot the ball very, very well,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “For me coming into the game that was a concern. I know the stat shows in the league they are shooting 24 percent, but give Mike a lot of credit. … I am sure Mike instilled confidence in them to just keep shooting the ball. I thought we did a poor job of letting them shoot the ball with their feet set and not having our hands up at all.”
Arkansas continued to dominate Florida in the second half, getting out in transition for some easy buckets. One of the biggest highlights came on a lob pass from Rashad Madden to Coty Clarke, who dunked the ball to push Arkansas’ lead to 67-40.
The Razorbacks had to hold on over the final 9:40, though. Florida finally settled down and began making shots to cut into Arkansas’ lead quickly.
The Gators used a 19-5 run over the next six minutes to close to 72-59. But Michael Qualls got a dunk on a fast break a few seconds later to end the threat and Arkansas went 6-for-6 from the free-throw line the rest of the way to wrap up the win.
Arkansas’ 80 points against Florida was a season-high. The previous best was Kansas State, which beat the Gators 67-61 on Dec. 22.
Anderson called it a “team win” and he was right. Eight Arkansas players finished with seven or more points Tuesday night, turning in one of the most balanced performances. Young led the way with 13 points, while Powell and Qualls added 11.
Anderson, who didn’t press the up-tempo Gators on Tuesday night, also lauded his halfcourt defense for making life tough on Florida all night.
Mike Rosario led Florida with 15 points, while Scottie Wilbekin added 14. Florida’s leading scorers — Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy — combined for just 19.
“We knew they were going to come out and play hard,” Boynton said. “They played harder than us. It was just their night.”
The Razorbacks enjoyed the aftermath, too. Several players ran to the student section, jumped in the crowd and celebrated the win for several minutes.
Powell then said in the postgame interview room the upset “showed the level of potential that we have.” He watched last year’s 30-point loss from the bench because of his knee injury, but was determined to lead Arkansas to “something positive” in its second chance against the Gators on Tuesday night.
It happened. And Anderson believes it will continue as his team presses forward.
“I think we played against an outstanding team and it was good to see us come out and perform,” Anderson said. “I think more than anything else it just tells me that we are growing up. I told people before the season that you are going to see this team change before your eyes throughout the season. We have taken some lumps throughout the season, but you can see the growth.”