FAYETTEVILLE — Mike Anderson always believed in Anthlon Bell’s ability to shoot the basketball, even while the sophomore struggled to even get on the court.
The Arkansas coach’s patience appears to have finally paid off.
Led by a resurgent and hot-shooting Bell off the bench, Arkansas (21-9, 10-7 Southeastern Conference) will try to extend its six-game winning streak when it closes out the regular season at Alabama (12-18, 6-11) on Saturday.
The Razorbacks have won eight of nine games overall, and they appear on the verge of securing the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008.
None of Arkansas’ recent wins was more convincing than Wednesday’s 110-80 dismantling of Mississippi, a game in which the Razorbacks led by 46 points midway through the second half before Anderson rested the regulars.
Arkansas trailed 17-16, but — as has increasingly been the case lately — that was when it received kick start off the bench in form of the 6-foot-3 Bell. The sophomore scored 14 of the team’s next 17 points in less than 3 minutes as Arkansas opened up a 56-34 halftime lead and never looked back.
“He’s one of those guys that, he’s capable off missing three in a row, and you’ve got to live with that,” Anderson said. “But he’s capable of making four in a row. I think now he’s starting to get that confidence, that’s all, as a shooter.”
Bell finished with a career-high 23 points in just 12 minutes of action, leading a bench that outscored the Rebels’ reserves 71-26. He finished 7-of-10 shooting on 3-pointers and worked the crowd of 16,508 into a frenzy, realizing early on that something special was happening.
“I guess you could say that, yeah,” Bell said, smiling.
Bell was recruited as a shooter out of Memphis, where he was the leading scorer in Bartlett High School history with more than 2,000 points.
However, he largely struggled to adjust to the college game last season as a freshman — averaging just 4.4 points per game and shooting 32.8 percent (43 of 131) from the field.
Anderson continued to praise Bell’s work in practice throughout his shooting woes, which carried over into this season. After opening the year by scoring in double digits in three of Arkansas’ first four games, the guard largely became a non-factor and even didn’t play in a pair of SEC games.
“Just got to grow up, that’s all,” Anderson said. “He had a chance to sit down on the bench a few times. He had to compete, so it’s good to see him come out and impact and help this team.”
Against Mississippi State two weeks ago, Bell suddenly found his touch. He hit 8 of 15 shots and scored a then career-best 19 points in 17 minutes as Arkansas won its second SEC road game of the year — after having won just once on the road in each of the last two seasons.
He followed that up with a 10-point effort in a win at Kentucky last week before Wednesday night’s offensive explosion against the Rebels.
It was a night that proved Anderson’s patience worthwhile, as well as giving hope Bell has found his touch moving forward.
“I think he’s ready now,” Anderson said. “I think he’s been through some things now. I don’t think he handled success earlier; I don’t think he handled it well. And so, now, maybe he can understand a little bit more now.”