FAYETTEVILLE — “Instant Image Makeover” debuted Tuesday night on ESPN.
In a 2-hour window, the perception of Arkansas as an outmanned bunch of so-so shooters was reshaped against a legitimate contender for the national championship.
Florida shot threes like Arkansas usually does — maybe worse — and the Razorbacks impersonated the Gators, the best shooting team in the Southeastern Conference. When Jacorey Williams, who was 0-of-4 from outside in eight previous SEC games, threw one in for 29-13, a beat writer reacted with “Really?”
Driving to Fayetteville, I offered that a 12-point Arkansas loss would be acceptable, maybe even an accomplishment. Conventional wisdom said that for the Razorbacks to win, Florida would have to turn the ball over about 20 times and shoot poorly. Even then, the outcome would be dicey the way Arkansas shoots threes.
Florida looked like a team burdened by its new No. 2 ranking and Arkansas played hard and loose, harassing the Gators and corralling every available ball. Arkansas contested most shots and Florida missed many of the open ones.
Scott Wilbekin’s 15-footer just before the halftime buzzer had two chances to go down, but didn’t and he walked off the court shaking his head in disbelief — an understandable reaction to a 43-26 deficit.
Trying to explain Arkansas’ 53.3 shooting percentage vs. Florida’s 29.2 at halftime, a seatmate just shook his head. Asking around, the best anybody could come up with was “Home.” Too easy. If that was the answer, wouldn’t Arkansas shoot lights out every game in Walton Arena?
Unquestionably, the Razorbacks’ victory was rooted in three-point shooting. Twelfth in the league at less than 30 percent, Arkansas made seven of its first nine on the way to a 37-15 lead. The shooting was as confounding as the shooters.
Not only did Williams make one, Michael Qualls — 1-of-3 from outside since early January — swished his only attempt from outside. B.J. Young, 4-of-27 in the SEC, made 2-of-5 in the first half.
On the other side, Erik Murphy — the second-best three-point shooter in the nation at better than 51 percent — missed all three of his first-half attempts and one more before a make.
With less than a second to play and the 80-69 victory secure, Arkansas’ ball handler threw the ball into the air. It bounced off the shoulder of Mardracus Wade who never flinched while on a beeline to the exuberant student section.
For perspective on Arkansas’ production in the first 20 minutes, know that only one of the Gators’ eight SEC opponents had topped 52 points in 40 minutes.
Florida started the second half stumbling around and Arkansas’ lead climbed to 23. The next time I looked up, it was 16. Arkansas was on the verge of a second straight shot clock violation when Qualls scored and Hunter Mickelson put back a miss on the next possession. Kikko Haydar’s three for a 20-point lead was preceded by two missed free throws by Michael Frazier, a 94 percent shooter from the line, and followed by the Gators failing to get anything from two fast breaks, even though they had the numbers.
It was that kind of night, one where they suffered a 10-second violation although there was no pressure on the ball and threw a pass to the Arkansas bench. They had 16 turnovers; it seemed like more.
The Razorbacks didn’t rush things in the second half — the crowd counted down the shot clock on the many occasions it dipped under 10 — and didn’t shoot as well as they did during the first half. Still, the outcome was never in doubt.
Once the euphoria wears off, the question is: What next? Did Arkansas turn the corner against the SEC favorite? I suspect the answer depends a great deal on three-point shooting.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is email@example.com.