FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas forced Kentucky into a handful of mistakes and converted them into a few easy buckets in the first half.
The Razorbacks were surprisingly strong on the offensive glass, too, muscling their way to extra possessions against a team sporting a much bigger frontcourt.
The strong effort only led Arkansas to a three-point halftime lead against the Wildcats on Saturday. So Arkansas forward Marshawn Powell said the halftime discussion in the Razorbacks’ locker room centered around one thing.
“We were talking about how we allowed them to stay in the game,” Powell said.
Arkansas made sure it didn’t matter in the second half, bullying the bigger Wildcats and capitalizing on its extra offensive opportunities en route to a 73-60 win in front of an announced crowd of 18,139 in Bud Walton Arena. The Razorbacks forced the Wildcats into a season-high 19 turnovers, outscored them 30-2 off the mistakes, grabbed an Southeastern Conference-high 20 offensive rebounds, and attempted 26 more field goals.
The result was a much-needed win for a team still fighting for its first postseason appearance since 2007-08. The Razorbacks also snapped Kentucky’s three-game win streak and improved to 16-1 in Bud Walton Arena this season.
“Heck of an effort by our basketball team,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “I was concerned about how we would respond coming off a tough loss at LSU, but I thought we came out and did what we normally do here. We defended. We did a good job of trying to take Kentucky out of the things they wanted to do. … We tried to make the game as chaotic as we could and I thought that was the difference.”
Arkansas (18-11, 9-7 SEC) was in Kentucky’s face from the opening tip, relying on its depth to apply waves of pressure on the Wildcats (20-9, 11-6). It wasn’t anything unusual. The Razorbacks have thrived at home on pressure, turning opponents’ mistakes into easy baskets on the other end.
But it was especially effective Saturday. Arkansas survived a sluggish start, overcoming an early 12-6 deficit thanks to its defense. Turnovers on three straight UK possessions helped the Hogs put together a 7-0 spurt to take their first lead.
The Razorbacks had plenty of opportunities to push further out in front, but several missed shots kept the game tight. Arkansas attempted 15 more field goals than Kentucky in the first half. It only made one more field goal, shooting 30.8 percent.
So Arkansas went into the locker room unsatisfied with its 32-29 lead.
“We had some bad opportunities where we didn’t score,” Anderson said. “Whether they block it or we miss a layup or get to the free throw line, we had some miscues.”
It changed in the first few minutes of the second half, when the Razorbacks took control of the game for good with a blue-collar effort.
Kentucky forward Alex Poythress opened the second half by making two free throws to cut Arkansas’ lead to one, then the Razorbacks put together an 11-0 run.
Guard Fred Gulley, who earned a surprising start after being scoreless in Arkansas’ previous six games, kicked off the spurt with a three-pointer. He got a steal on the ensuing possession, throwing a long pass to guard B.J. Young for a dunk on the other end to quickly give the Razorbacks their biggest lead at 37-31.
Kentucky committed turnovers on its next three possessions, too, which the Razorbacks turned into points on the other end each time. Arkansas’ lead ballooned to 43-31 before Poythress ended the game’s biggest spurt with a layup.
“I mean, us collectively as a team didn’t fight through it,” Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein said of Arkansas’ pressure. “We knew it was going to happen, they were going to foul us, the refs weren’t going to call anything.”
Said Kentucky guard and former Sylvan Hills star Archie Goodwin, who scored a team-high 14 points in his homecoming: “I just think we weren’t tough enough with the ball. Instead of taking our time we were just trying to play hot potato. When you do that that builds a team up and they continue to come at you more aggressively.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari said he tried to prepare his team — which felt it had gained mounds of confidence in winning three straight — for the hands-on battle it was stepping into in Fayetteville. But the Wildcats had few answers for Arkansas’ physical play Saturday and Calipari said it was obvious to everyone.
“We’re not as tough as them. We’re not as physical,” Calipari said. “Their staff’s saying as we walk off, ‘They are soft.’ And I have to say, ‘That’s what it looks like.’
“It’s just, when you get overwhelmed, you get anxiety, that’s what happens. You back up. And we’ve got a young team.”
Kentucky did find a way to crawl as close as five points during the second half, but turnovers created by Arkansas’ pressure derailed the Wildcats again.
Forward Coty Clarke scored five points — each after grabbing an offensive rebound — during another 7-0 spurt to help Arkansas extend its lead to 52-40. The Wildcats never trailed by fewer than 10 points the rest of the game.
Clarke tallied 14 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in the win. His six assists were one better than Kentucky’s entire roster (five). Powell also finished with 15 points and six rebounds, helping Arkansas outrebound Kentucky 44-37.
“Them guys are big,” Powell said. “I mean, they’ve got two big guys playing down there. We knew we had to just box them out and crash the glass as hard as we can.
“We were coming up with a lot of 50-50 balls and it worked out for us.”
It helped Arkansas win its 13th straight in Bud Walton Arena. It also moved the Razorbacks to 33-4 in the building since Anderson’s arrival last season and assured the Hogs of their first conference record of .500 or better since 2007-08.
The performance also kept Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament hopes — which appear very slim at this point thanks to a 1-10 record in games played outside of the state — intact with two games left in the regular season.
Once again, Anderson didn’t want to talk about it after the game. He simply said the Razorbacks are “in the hunt for something. I don’t know what it is” as they prepare for the final regular season road game at Missouri on Tuesday night.
“You’ve just got to win games,” Anderson said. “This is one of the games that you talked about. It was the next game on our schedule. So what’s important next? Let’s go to practice and get better and then we hit the road and go to Missouri.”