Michael Washington and the new kids fought all night, and Arkansas came out with a 91-87 comeback overtime win Friday night in the season opener against Southeastern Louisiana in Bud Walton Arena.
The 13,200 in attendance couldn't ask for a better show. Trailing most of the game, Southeastern jumped out to an early lead in the overtime period until Montrell McDonald followed a missed shot to tie it at 80-80 with 2:43 remaining in regulation. The difference in the ballgame came down to the last 2:27 when Washington was 6-for-7 from the free throw line which helped Arkansas get the 4-point win. Washington finished the game with 30 points and 14 rebounds on 10-of-16 shooting while playing 41 minutes.
"I really didn't know what type of heart we would have, and I thought that was why we won. Guys just kept playing," Hog coach John Pelphrey said. "I can't say enough about [Washington's] performance. That's unbelievable. 30 and 14 and bounced back from the poor free-throw shooting in the 1st half."
Bad shooting at the charity stripe left the Hogs playing from behind most of the game. Arkansas shot just 57.1 percent from the line. Washington was 9-of-16, and true freshman point guard Courtney Fortson, a 79 percent free throw shooter in high school, was 6-of-13. But in the end, while Washington made his clutch free throws, Southeastern was making 1-of-4, including the front end of two different 1-and-1 tries that took away 2 more opportunities. In the overtime period, Southeastern was 2-of-6, making them 3-of-10 down the stretch.
Up 14-9 with 13:56 remaining in the first half, Arkansas took out most of the starters and at the 12:04 mark Southeastern tied it at 15 all. Most of the starters came back in after that. The two battled back and forth until DeShawn Patterson's free throw put the Lions ahead 32-31 with 4:30 remaining, and Southeastern didn't look back…for a while, anyway. The Lions held the lead for the next 24 minutes all the way down to 21 seconds left in the game when freshman guard Rotnei Clarke drilled a 3-pointer from the corner and pulled Arkansas to within 1. Fortson's contested layup tied it following a made free throw, 77-77 and the game was bound for overtime.
"We got a rebound. I knew I had to get to the corner because it was a fast-break, we were down. Montrell did good job of slicing the floor and finding me in the corner, and I hit it." Clarke said. "Then Courtney made an unbelievable play."
Arkansas went on to win the game of course, and Pelphrey said this will be a great game to help the team grow and understand what he is trying to get out of them as individuals and as a team.
"This is the best lesson we could get right now, to get challenged, to find some incredible way to win. They got a taste of what it is like to play in Bud Walton Arena and how passionate these fans are, what an advantage they are for us," Pelphrey said. "And now I get to go back and scream and yell off of a win about 'what do you think, this is my first time through? I know what I'm talking about. There's a reason we've got this coaching staff. You need to pay attention.' The difficult thing is when you lose and you've got to try to go back and have those conversations, it's not nearly as effective."
Fortson dazzled at times with great passes on his way to 7 assists. He showed good penetration skills and some serious shake, and while sometimes he was too determined to score on the blocks, he still had 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting and shot 13 free throws. Fortson's 6 turnovers are more indicative of the team not having played together a lot rather than his skill as a ball handler.
"I was kind of anxious being that it was the first game. I wasn't nervous at all, I was just anxious," Fortson said. "It's a big burden off our shoulders being that it was the first game and we're a young team. I think Coach Pelphrey was the most nervous person in the locker room. We knew that, so we came out and grinded and grinded away."
Clarke certainly did not disappoint, opening 3-for-3 from 3-point range, not including a long 2-point bucket on his first attempt of the game. He hit a cold streak in the 2nd half, but was clutch in the closing moments of regulation. Clarke was 5-of-8 from 3-point range (62.5 percent) and 6-of-11 from the field for 17 points in 39 minutes of action.
"Once the deficit came down and we started cutting into it, and you could hear the fans picking us up, and this is fun to play when we've got home court advantage like that," Clarke said. "We're going to get better in practice tomorrow, and we're going to get ready for the next game because that's the one that matters."
Junior guard Stefan Welsh did not have his best outing from the field and was 0-for-3 from beyond the arc. He took a few bad shots and couldn't seem to find a rhythm. However, he was 5-for-6 from the free throw line and did a good job of drawing contact and managing the team in some crucial moments.
Redshirt freshman power forward Michael Sanchez pulled down 12 rebounds in only 25 minutes, and while it appears he may be a physical force defensively, he had trouble finishing on offense with 5 points on 2-of-6 shooting
Down 69-74, Sanchez fouled out of the game with 2:10 remaining, and McDonald filled his spot. McDonald, a junior college transfer wing player, has not been working at the power forward spot in practice, but he had to learn on the fly. He finished with 7 points and 8 rebounds and played the 4th most minutes on the team with 27 even though he came off the bench. His 4 points and 1 assist in the closing 2 minutes of regulation helped the Hogs force overtime.
"Montrell McDonald has been practicing really, really well for us, coming along, coming along.," Pelphrey said," I have not practiced 'small' too much in practice. I was afraid of having to do that, but tonight he let me coach him on the fly, and I thought his performance was the best because he basically played a five or four spot all night long, and outside a few reps in practice he let me coach him on the fly. I thought he stayed aggressive, he rebounded the ball. I thought his defense was really energetic out there."
Freshmen big men Brandon Moore and Andre Clark saw limited action, and freshman forward Jason Henry played 10 minutes with no points or rebounds. Sophomore Marcus Britt was solid on defense in 17 minutes and hit a big 3-pointer down the stretch. He finished with 5 points.
"He's willing to do whatever it takes for us. He is completely selfless. That needs to permeate through our whole basketball team. It will," Pelphrey said. "Marcus stays focused, I'm proud of Marcus. He shows up everyday with his hardhat and his lunch pale, unbelievable attitude, total focus helping this basketball team win."
Southeastern is not a bad team. They have good height, good scorers and athletes. They return several starters from last season, including some conference standouts like Kevyn Green, an exceptional player who scored 21 points and 6 rebounds in a typical night for him. Last season at LSU they lost 72-62. At Alabama they lost 63-61. They lost 84-59 at Mississippi State and 57-50 at Iowa. Arkansas got in a shootout with Dillard but won handily in the second exhibition this year. Southeastern beat Dillard 95-53 last season.
"We knew we had to get it together," McDonald said. "We know we've got to get a lot better and we knew that they were good. They're not a sorry team. They played four SEC teams last year and took them to the end, so we knew they were a good competitive team."
Pelphrey's concern started nearly two weeks ago.
"I had a chance to start watching film of these guys about 10 days ago, and I knew we'd gotten ourselves into a very, very difficult situation," Pelphrey said. "This was not going to be easy. My worst concerns came true. We had a very difficult time guarding those three [key players]. They do a great job of spacing and they just really play to their strengths. Experienced group, all three of those guys averaged like 10, 12 and 15 from a year ago. Very, very confident offensive basketball team."
So while it is never a good sign on the surface to be in a heated battle with a mid-major, the Hogs were playing their first real game together with six new players in key roles, and the opponent had been around the block and performed admirably. Southeastern was a bigger jump up in competition from the two previous NAIA teams Arkansas pounded in exhibition games, and the young guys almost found out the hard way, which would have given Arkansas its first season opening loss at home in 35 years.
Arkansas will return to practice Saturday to correct mistakes and to prepare for Thursday's game against California-Davis. Tip for that one is set at 7:05 p.m. (CST).