FAYETTEVILLE - Beyond the usual motivation just to win the game, the Arkansas Razorbacks surged Saturday afternoon into Walton Arena against Georgia determined to win for their three seniors and win a NCAA Tournament berth for themselves.
They assuredly won, 85-67, for their three seniors with seniors Manny Watkins, 12 points, and Moses Kingsley and Dusty Hannahs, matching junior Jaylen Barford for a team game-high 15 points, helping their cause.
And finishing the regular season 23-8 overall and 12-6 in the SEC they surely believe they have a NCAA Tournament bid in hand before advancing with a double bye to Friday’s SEC Tournament quarterfinals in Nashville while Georgia, 18-13, 9-9, will play in Thursday’s SEC Tournament second-round after the bottom four teams in the 14-team league open the tournament Wednesday night.
“I just want to let you all know we are going dancing,” Little Rock native Hannahs said on the public address microphone postgame to the nearing capacity 16,055.
Asked about Hannahs’ postgame NCAA Tournament comments, Arkansas coach Mike Anderson certainly did not deem them premature.
“We’ve done what we are supposed to do,” Anderson said. “We’ve done what we are supposed to do.”
Behind some incredible free throw shooting, 14 of 15 in the first half, and 11 points from senior guard J.J. Frazier, leading all scorers with 24 for the game, the Bulldogs led by as much as seven (21-14) during the first half and only trailed, 38-37 at intermission.
Frazier continued scoring while the Bulldogs continued shooting incredibly from the line, 26 of 28 for the game, with Frazier 13 of 13, they couldn’t keep up with the Hogs defending all over the court.
Even leading by just one “against a Georgia team playing really good basketball,” Anderson said he could see the Razorbacks’ depth starting to wear Georgia down late in the first half, especially when junior guard Anton Beard fought through pile to come up with a loose ball and somehow get it to Trey Thompson for the junior forward from Madison via Forrest City High to dunk for a 33-31 lead after Georgia achieved its last tie, 31-31.
“We score out of it and the place continues to erupt and we just had Georgia on their heels,” Anderson said.
Georgia’s second half started with Arkansas stops, Anderson said.
“I thought defensively, offensively, all of it clicked in,” Anderson said. “We came out with multiple stops at the beginning of the second half. Then, I thought the fans fed off of that and our guys fed off of that. Before you know it, the game sped up to our liking and we started rebounding the basketball much more efficiently I thought that was the biggest difference of the first half.”
Oh, and there was a 6-10 sized difference. Kingsley, a go-to man late in the first half, kept getting fed inside for second-half dunks and finishing with nine rebounds and two blocked shots and three assists.
“That was the emphasis at halftime,” Hannahs said of jamming it to Kingsley inside. “We call it feed the beast because Moses is the beast and that’s what we did. He produced for us in his last game at Bud Walton. We all did and that must makes it that much cooler.”
The three seniors with their families were introduced to standing ovations before tip-off. Hannahs and Watkins exited to a standing ovation together at 2:36 with Kingsley afforded a standing ovation removed from the game a minute later.
“ I know I am going to enjoy it,” Kingsley of Nigeria said of his last game at Walton before Monday’s preparation for the SEC Tournament.
Watkins, a Fayetteville High grad and the son of Arkansas assistant coach Melvin Watkins, said he got Senior Day family help from an unexpected source.
“I was real nervous before the game,” Watkins said. “My five-year old nephew tapped me on the shoulder and he said, ‘You are going to do great.’ Thank you to Nathan for calming me down a little bit.”
As for his father, whom he says he always refers to as “Coach Watkins” around the team and even at his family home since his freshman year walking on with the Razorbacks, Senior Day marked a fatherly exception.
“Today it was Dad,” Manny Watkins said of his parents escorting him in the pregame ceremony. “