FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson was proud of his team for the way it grinded through a 79-74 win against Robert Morris on Thursday night.
Now he wants to make sure the Razorbacks haven’t checked out early for Christmas.
Arkansas (6-4) will take the court one more time before the holiday, playing Alabama A&M (3-6) in North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena at 7 tonight. It’s the Razorbacks’ annual trip to central Arkansas and Anderson is urging his team to run its win streak to three games while putting on a good show for supporters.
“I think the big key is not letting them look too far down the road and think it’s Christmas already,” Anderson said Tuesday night. “They are going to be playing against an A&M team that has nothing to lose and everything to gain and it gives us a chance to play in central Arkansas in front of our fans.”
Arkansas is two days removed from a rugged performance against Robert Morris, which pressed the Razorbacks into a nail-biting finish in Bud Walton Arena. Guard B.J. Young (23 points), forward Hunter Mickelson (career-high 16 points) and guard Mardracus Wade (season-high 14 points) helped lift Arkansas to the win in a game it trailed by as much as eight points in the first half.
Arkansas endured plenty of flaws, like committing 14 turnovers and struggling on offense against Robert Morris in the first half. The most notable issue came at the free-throw line, where the Hogs went 13-for-26 (50 percent). The woes were nearly costly in a game the Razorbacks led by just three points with 2:50 remaining.
Arkansas made enough plays down the stretch, though, to avoid a disappointing end. Anderson thought it was a good test for his team when it was over.
“Credit to our guys,” Anderson said. “We didn’t falter and we got the win.”
But he’s hoping they’ll respond with a better all-around effort against an Alabama A&M team that recently suffered a 71-46 loss at Vanderbilt.
The Razorbacks are a heavy favorite against the Southwestern Athletic Conference school, but there is one historical issue in play tonight. The Razorbacks are playing in a venue that has led to little success for the program since 2001-02, when Anderson was an assistant at Arkansas on former coach Nolan Richardson’s staff.
Arkansas is 3-8 in Verizon Arena since that time with their only wins coming against North Texas (2008), Rice (2005) and Jacksonville (2003). The opponent hasn’t mattered much. One of Arkansas’ losses came to Appalachian State in 2007.
The Razorbacks endured a particularly difficult trip last year, too, when forward Marshawn Powell tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during practice in Verizon Arena the day before an 87-78 loss to Houston.
“Yeah, things might have happened in the past, but this is a whole new team,” Mickelson said. “So hopefully we’ll be able to go down there and get it done.”
Arkansas guard Fred Gulley said Anderson spoke to his team about the importance of avoiding an early holiday lull as it prepared for the quick transition after the Robert Morris win on Thursday. Gulley believes it won’t be an issue for the Razorbacks, saying they’ll “worry about Christmas next week.”
Mickelson agreed. He said Arkansas doesn’t plan to step into a week-long break with another disappointing performance in North Little Rock.
“(Anderson) was talking about some of the guys checking out before Christmas, but no one’s like that,” Mickelson said. “We’re all in it right now. We’ll get Christmas when it comes, but right now we’re focused on the game.”
Alabama A&M (3-6) at Arkansas (6-4)
• When: 7 p.m. today
• Where: Verizon Arena, North Little Rock
• TV/Radio: KATV-7/KABZ-FM 103.3
• Series: First meeting