Arkansas Rejuvenates Its Program With Buzzer-Beating Dunk and Win

Posted by Eli Linton on January 15th, 2014

Arkansas could not have asked for a more timely victory than the one it got in front of a national audience on Tuesday night. The Razorbacks took a top-15 opponent to overtime for a second game in a row, this time earning a win over Kentucky thanks to the instant-wow rebound and face-melting dunk by Michael Qualls as time expired. The win has put Arkansas squarely on the bubble, and for the time being at the very least, gets the Razorbacks into the conversation for an eventual at-large bid.

The Razorbacks had plenty to celebrate about Tuesday evening. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

The Razorbacks had plenty to celebrate about Tuesday evening. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

It’s been a year since we last visited Bud Walton Arena to take in a Razorback game. Then it was for Arkansas’ loss to Michael Carter-Williams and the Syracuse Orange. Despite the loss a season ago, you could already see the Razorbacks’ promise under new head coach Mike Anderson, and since then they have taken huge strides toward once again becoming a premier SEC program. Watching Arkansas hang tough against Florida last week, you knew they were getting close, and needed just one big win to earn some respect and possibly emerge as a major conference threat. They got it in a big way on Tuesday, thanks in large part to their defensive play and veteran leadership. A team that has experienced its share of hard times and disappointment is now using that to fuel its way to what they hope is a little bit of March glory. “The way the team was celebrating in the locker room, you could tell we needed it,” said Qualls. “Hopefully that will give us a boost on through the next game.”

We know all about the talent and star power that Kentucky boasts, but it was the experience of Arkansas that won this game, and conversely, inexperience that may have lost it for Kentucky. “That last shot, we just watched it,” said John Calipari in dismay after the game. “That’s what freshman do.” For Michael Qualls, who claims this was the third time, including high school, where he had won a game with a buzzer-beating dunk, the chaos of the moment provided him the perfect opportunity to seal the win. “Crashing the boards in that type of situation is the best time to crash the boards,” said Qualls, “Everybody is standing around, clinching their shirt, hoping he doesn’t hit the three.  So I just saw the opportunity and I went and took it. ”

If you watched the game from start to finish instead of skipping right to the highlights, then you know that despite the great finish, it was a sloppy contest. It took 72 minutes to play the first half thanks to a total of 28 fouls. If not for the incredible finish to the game, we would be talking more about the 60 fouls whistled and the 80 free throws attempted, as the referees clearly affected the flow of the game. At one point, Kentucky had mounted a 10-0 “run,” but you would never know it without looking at a stat sheet because there was absolutely no momentum behind it. It was mostly earned at the free throw stripe. The product on the floor was far from quality, but Arkansas, to their credit, used the slower pace to their advantage. They controlled with their defense. It took a near miracle three-pointer from Andrew Harrison at the end of regulation, and then another game-tying three by James Young with 10 seconds remaining in overtime for Kentucky to even have a shot to walk out with a win. Arkansas’ pressure forced the Wildcats into eight turnovers in the first 10 minutes of the game, a huge advantage that allowed the Hawgs to overcome the big rebounding deficit. The Wildcats finished with 17 total turnovers, while Arkansas generally protected the ball and only gave away six.

There were times late in regulation when it seemed Arkansas was playing desperate, even a little tight at times. The loyal fans and the players both knew their March hopes seemingly rested on the outcome of this game.They missed key free throws, lost rebounds, and let Kentucky hang around. But having already gone through a similar heartbreak over the weekend with Florida, you could see them dig up that grit they knew they needed to win. They finished like a team that has been in this spot before. “A bounce-back from a loss is hard,” said Qualls. “But having a win, especially in this situation, its a big boost.”

With an 11-4 overall record but an RPI in the 90s and a rough 1-3 mark away from Bud Walton Arena, Arkansas is a bubble team for now. But this win may be enough to push them into the NCAA Tournament if they avoid bad losses the rest of the way. They have two important road games coming up at Georgia and Tennessee  that can further the postseason cause, but in the end, it was experience rather than overwhelming talent that won this round.  The veteran Razorbacks saw its opportunity to seize the game, while the Wildcats were caught standing around and waiting for a double-overtime that never came.

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