FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guard Michael Qualls had been frustrated throughout Southeastern Conference play, struggling to find room to roam against defenses determined to take away his athleticism.
It left Qualls — Arkansas’ most dynamic player — without a dunk through two games. But that changed at the most critical time Tuesday night.
Qualls followed a missed 3-pointer by Ky Madden with a dunk in the final second of overtime to help the Razorbacks record an 87-85 win against Kentucky in front of an announced crowd of 18,886 in Bud Walton Arena. The sophomore slipped by Kentucky guard James Young on the left side of the court, went in the air to collect the miss by Madden and dunked it through the basket with 0.2 seconds left.
The Fayetteville crowd roared as officials reviewed the basket to make sure he beat the game clock. Qualls did and, after Kentucky missed on a full-court pass, Arkansas celebrated with the fans as the Razorbacks erased their 0-2 start in conference play.
“I just saw an opportunity and took it,” Qualls said. “It’s great for me. Great for my confidence. But it’s giving the team a boost I know we need.”
The dunk proved to be an emphatic end to an otherwise ugly game marred by 60 fouls and 81 free throws. Arkansas (12-4, 1-2 in SEC) and Kentucky (12-4, 2-1) seemed to spend the majority of the night at the line, while coaches worked through their rosters to manage foul trouble.
“We were beating the crap out of each other,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “It was hand-to-hand combat. … We both played that way.”
Arkansas thought it had done enough to survive at the end of regulation when Alandise Harris notched a 3-point play with 9.5 seconds left. But — just like the end of last Saturday’s loss to Florida — the Wildcats answered to force the overtime.
Freshman Andrew Harrison knocked down a 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds left to silence the crowd. Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin provided the dagger Saturday. But Arkansas wouldn’t cave in Tuesday night despite the heart-breaking moment.
“Sometimes guys can have flashbacks,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said about his team’s mentality after going to overtime again. “But to our guys’ credit they really showed some resilience. They really wanted this game.”
So Arkansas continued grinded its way to the win in overtime. The Razorbacks only shot 37.7 percent from the field and missed nine free throws in the second half and overtime, but collected enough points and stops to have the ball in a tie game.
“It was my fault,” said Young, who said he lost track of Qualls off the miss.
Said Madden: “I just heard the crowd roar.”
Qualls said it was the third time he has ended the game with a dunk. The other two came in high school, which was not nearly the same stage as Tuesday night in front of a full arena and an ESPN audience.
Qualls and Madden each scored 18 points for the Razorbacks, while Young scored 23 points for Kentucky and Julius Randle had 20 points and 14 rebounds.
The 18 points by Qualls’ was his best performance in conference play after the sophomore went 3-for-22 from the field against Texas A&M and Florida.
“I’ve been in a slump lately,” Qualls said. “I wanted to come out and stop worrying so much. I wanted to come out and play hard. … It was a great confidence builder.”
The conclusion — and the gritty effort — helped the Razorbacks narrowly avoid an 0-3 start in conference play and provided an important win for their postseason resume. It also gives Arkansas its first back-to-back wins against Kentucky since the 2000 and 2001 seasons and another memorable moment in Fayetteville.
Arkansas, which also was dangerously close suffering its first two-game losing streak in Bud Walton Arena since 2011, improved to 45-5 in Fayetteville under Anderson. The Razorbacks will leave the comforts of home with new life for their next two games, playing at Georgia and Tennessee.
“Let give Arkansas credit,” Calipari said. “They didn’t go away.”