FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson believed his team had a lot of good basketball left to play despite missing the NCAA Tournament.
The Razorbacks didn’t exactly turn in a clean and crisp performance throughout its National Invitation Tournament opener against Indiana State on Tuesday night. But it was more than enough to help Arkansas enjoy its first postseason win in six years.
Arkansas beat Indiana State 91-71 in front of an announced crowd of 7,697 in Bud Walton Arena, rebounding from losses to Alabama and South Carolina that ultimately cost the Razorbacks a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Guard Anthlon Bell led the way with another career night, scoring a game-high 28 points. Five other Razorbacks scored in double figures, too, including forward Alandise Harris (13 points, 6 rebounds).
It pushes Arkansas (22-11) into the second round of the NIT, although the Razorbacks won’t know their next opponent until late Wednesday night when California and Utah Valley meet in the first round in Berkeley, Calif. Arkansas will host the second-round game if seventh-seed Valley wins or will travel to second-seed California for a rematch of the 2013 Maui Invitational opener last November.
“We know there are a lot of firsts that are taking place (this season),” Anderson said about his third season. “All we want to do is be consistent and get better. … I think that’s the team that you saw that made the run, winning eight of nine games.”
Anderson admitted he wasn’t sure which team he would see after the disappointment of missing the NCAA field. Bell helped answer the question early.
The sophomore, who scored 23 points in Arkansas’ 110-80 win against Ole Miss in the final home game of the regular season, continued his hot shooting in home games. Anderson plugged him into the starting lineup on what he described as a hunch and Bell responded by scoring Arkansas’ first 10 points.
“I don’t know,” Bell said about his start. “It surprises me, too. I owe it all to the offense. The offense is working good for me. People are looking for me.”
Bell continued to get open in the first half and knocked down shots. He had 15 of Arkansas’ 25 points at one time. Bell finished with 18 points in the first half.
“He got going and they rewarded him,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “He took advantage of it. He was hot from the start and never let up.”
It took the rest of the Razorbacks some time to follow along against Indiana State (23-11), which was playing in the NIT for the second straight season and entered the tournament with nine road wins this season. Arkansas had an obvious advantage on the boards, but couldn’t make shots in the early going.
Freshman Bobby Portis endured the biggest struggles, going 0-for-7 with most of the misses from close range. Forward Coty Clarke also was 1-for-7 in the half, while the Razorbacks shot just 35.3 percent as a team before the break.
But behind Bell — and a late surge by Michael Qualls — Arkansas was able to take a six-point lead to the locker room. Qualls scored six straight for the Razorbacks to help them take the lead. Then, Ky Madden recorded a steal and was fouled with 0.9 seconds left. His two free throws made it 37-31 at the break.
“Our guys came out with tenacious energy on defense,” Anderson said. “We were really getting after it against an Indiana State team that’s a really good basketball team. We were deflecting passes, getting in the passing lanes.”
The momentum continued in the second half, when Arkansas scored 10 straight points to build a double-digit lead. The Razorbacks pushed it to as many as 19 points midway through the half before Indiana State began to crawl back.
Sycamores point guard Jake Odum knocked down a three-pointer that cut Arkansas’ lead to eight points with 6:18 left. But the drama was short-lived.
“It gave us a little bit of life, cutting it down to eight or so,” Odum said. “They didn’t wear down. They’re tough. They stayed composed, kept pushing us.”
Arkansas’ depth and athleticism proved too much for Indiana State.
The Razorbacks went on a 20-3 spurt after watching Indiana State trim the lead below 10, wrapping up the win. Bell put the finishing touches on the performance, too, by knocking down two more three-pointers before leaving the floor to an ovation.
Bell finished 11-for-13 from the field, including 6-for-8 behind the three-point line.
His final bucket helped him extend his career-high to 28 points.
“That run just helped get us over the hump and put them away,” Bell said.
Arkansas shot 64.5 percent in the second half and finished the game at 49.2 percent (32-for-65). In addition to Bell and Harris, Qualls (11 points), Madden (11), Clarke (10) and Portis (10) scored in double figures Tuesday night.
Arkansas also outrebounded the smaller Sycamores 46-32. Portis had a career-high 13 rebounds and set the school’s freshman rebounding record in the win.
It didn’t come in the NCAA Tournament. But Clarke and the Razorbacks believe their win in the NIT opener was a sign they’re motivated to chase a championship.
“Some people aren’t playing right now,” Clarke said. “So we’re fortunate to be playing even if it isn’t the NCAA. We’re just glad to be here and you’re still playing for a national championship. There’s five games and we’re down one. …
“We just want to finish strong.”