The Razorbacks made the trip to Bowling Green with revenge on the mind. The Hill Toppers of Western Kentucky handed Arkansas a home loss last season, their 3rd consecutive win over the Hogs. Returning from last year’s matchup for the Hill Toppers is sophomore center Charles Bassey. Bassey is the reigning freshman of the year and defensive player of the year in conference USA. Averaging 15.9 PPG and 9.6 RPG on the season, Bassey was present on many lists for the 2020 NBA Draft. Along with the star big man, Western Kentucky boasts three other players also averaging double digit scoring. Coming into the contest, the Hill Toppers shot 37.6% from deep and scored 79.6 PPG. Meanwhile Arkansas held is first 8 opponents to a nation-leading 20% from deep and 52.6 PPG. Something had to give.
First Half Hogs
One of the biggest stories for the Razorbacks in the first half was Jimmy Whitt continuing his all-around excellence. His lack of highlight plays makes Whitt an easy player to overlook. He is one of those guys that just always seems to quietly be in the right place at the right time. Eventually you look up and realize he has 17 points, 12 rebounds (season high), 4 assists, and 1 steal. HC Eric Musselman commented on Whitt before the contest stating that Whitt is the “best rebounding guard in the country.” Outside of Whitt, The Razorbacks did not find much consistency as scoring was scattered and sporadic. Jaylen Harris continued to improve his 3pt shooting. He leads the team shooting 35% after an abysmal 6 made threes on 11% shooting last season. Ethan Henderson earned a few minutes of playing time after his instant spark off the bench in the Razorback’s last outing, but he failed to post any stats. Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe both had shaky stretches, but managed to provided solid scoring.
First Half Hill Toppers
Western Kentucky found their offense in the paint early and often. The combination of Bassey and forward Carson Williams, a former Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky, proved to be a tough matchup for Arkansas’s bigs in the first half. While the Hill Toppers struggled often with Arkansas’s stifling half-court defense, they were able to find some easy buckets in transition. The balanced attack of bully ball and early offense was enough to give the Hogs fits, producing many ‘firsts’ by halftime. This was the first time this season Arkansas has allowed more than 32 points in the first half. More impressively, this was the first time Arkansas trailed at half time in their first 9 contests. An interesting side not, Arkansas has lost the last 14 (now 15) non-conference true road games when trailing at half time, according to HawgStats.com.
Musselman showed his worth as Arkansas came out of the half with a revived game plan to slow down Bassey. It took a full team effort from Arkansas to limit Bassey’s scoring throughout the half, including a few big time blocks from Reggie Chaney and Adrio Bailey. Desi Sills also showed flashes of hope as he nearly doubled his season 3 point total for the 2nd consecutive game. He hit two total through games 1-7, two in game 8, and 3 during the match against the Hill Toppers. Late game turnovers and missed opportunities proved to be too much for the Hogs to overcome, but they never gave up the fight. Mason Jones was given his 2nd opportunity at a game-winner in four games, but was not quite as heroic this time. A questionable missed call on his 3pt attempt forced OT were the Razorbacks fell apart late.
Disaster Strikes for Western Kentucky
The biggest take away from the 2nd half for the Hill Toppers was the season-ending injury to big man, Charles Bassey. Although they were able to rally the troops and win this game in OT, the Hill Toppers have a tall task ahead of them with Bassey sidelined for the remainder of the season. This gruesome injury could prove detrimental to the rest of their season, as well as Bassey’s draft stock. Prayers up to the star big man.
Even after their leading scorer went down, Western Kentucky found ways to stay in the game, possession after possession. They overcame some questionable calls of their own, hit a game tying 3 to force OT, and had a season high performance from their own Overtime Hero, Taveion Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth went for 23 points, more than 10 points over his season average, to lead all scorers. He continued to hit huge shot after shot to bury the Hogs down the stretch. With time on their side and Arkansas missing FTs late, the short-handed Hill Toppers topped the Hogs 86 – 79 to hand them their first loss of the season. This was also Western Kentucky’s first home win against an SEC team since 2010.
Hogs Hope not Lost
Although this one was ugly and disappointing, Razorback fans should not have cause for panic just yet. Isaiah Joe showed flashes of his potential with scoring spurts and knocking down 3s. Desi Sills continues to regain his confidence after struggling to start the season. Mason Jones is still getting his rhythm back after being sidelined with an injury earlier in the year. Most importantly of all, Eric Musselman showed tremendous coaching in the half time adjustments made to slow down star center, Charles Bassey, before he went down with injury. While there are obviously issues to work on, the Razorbacks remain on the right track to having a competitive season.