Razorbacks crank up defense

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson set a goal for his team before Saturday’s game against High Point. He wanted the Razorbacks to crank up the intensity on defense and record 40 deflections in the nonconference test.

Arkansas fell short of its goal, finishing with 37 deflections. But Anderson wasn’t complaining after his team overwhelmed the Panthers.

Arkansas rolled to an 89-48 win against High Point in front of an announced crowd of 9,110 in Bud Walton Arena, leaning on a suffocating defense to enjoy another easy night. The Razorbacks forced 25 turnovers and collected 17 steals — both were season highs — to grab their sixth straight win.

It also helped Arkansas win its 22nd straight home game and finish 2013 undefeated in Fayetteville (18-0). It’s just the third time the Razorbacks have finished a calendar year without a loss in Bud Walton Arena (1994 and 1998).

“A very complete performance by our basketball team from start to finish,” Anderson said. “I put three words on the board (in the locker room) before these guys came out. One of them was ‘Stops.’ We talked about having multiple stops and we started that game off with, like, seven multiple stops. It ignited our defense.

“Our defense, it was everywhere.”

The harassment began from the opening tip after Arkansas forward Coty Clarke opened the rout by knocking down a three-pointer. The field goal allowed the Razorbacks (10-2) to set up a press that High Point had problems breaking.

The Panthers (3-8) turned the ball over four times on their first five possessions — all credited to point guard Jorge Perez-Laham — as Arkansas raced out to a 9-0 lead.

“We had a sports psychologist come in earlier this week and he just told us that on defense we needed to turn our energy up on defense and get more deflections and steals,” forward Bobby Portis said. “And coach preached it a lot to us in practice.”

It didn’t get much easier for High Point, which set a season-high for turnovers.

Arkansas turned steals into easy buckets throughout a half that saw the Panthers finish with 14 turnovers and nine field goals. The Razorbacks outscored High Point 16-2 off turnovers and took a 42-23 lead to the locker room.

“It’s like a constant wave of guys coming at you,” High Point coach Scott Cherry said. “They can easily play 12 guys and the talent level doesn’t seem to dip.”

The pressure continued in the second half. Guard Kikko Haydar turned in the most memorable play, battling to steal the ball from Perez-Laham near midcourt. It started a fast break that ended with a thunderous dunk by Michael Qualls, who was fouled and completed a three-point play to give the Razorbacks a 68-38 lead.

Haydar finished with four steals. Portis added three. Ten different Razorbacks recorded at least one steal as Arkansas outscored High Point 36-10 off turnovers.

“From the five guys that started out to even the guys that were on the bench and you could just see the energy was in the building,” Anderson said. “It was kind of contagious. … No matter who I put in the game, I thought they kept the level of intensity at a great pace.”

Arkansas was equally balanced offensively. Twelve players scored Saturday.

Portis led the Razorbacks with 16 points, reaching double figures for the eighth straight game. Qualls (12), Moses Kingsley (12), Clarke (11) and Anthlon Bell (11) also reached double figures. Bell’s 11-point outing was his best since scoring 16 in the Maui Invitational opener against California on Nov. 25.

Arkansas shot 51.5 percent (34-for-66), went 14-for-17 from the free-throw line and finished with 22 assists on 34 baskets Saturday night. It all helped the Razorbacks enjoy their third win of 40 points or more this season.

Arkansas has another week until its next game against Texas-San Antonio in Bud Walton Arena on Jan. 4. It’s the Razorbacks’ final nonconference tune-up before diving into the 18-game Southeastern Conference schedule on Jan. 8.

Anderson believes his team will be ready if its defensive intensity continues.

“We’ve still got some work to do,” Anderson said. “But as long as we bring the energy and the defensive mindset … That was the positive out of (Saturday).”