No. 16 Arkansas trailed by double digits in the first half of the men’s basketball season opener Tuesday, but stormed back to reign victorious, defeating the Mercer Bears 74-61 in Bud Walton Arena.
The Razorbacks did not play well in the first half. They started a small lineup of five guards that put a lot of pressure on the ball, and that resulted in easy Mercer points off steals. Senior guard JD Notae seemed to be the only Razorback that could score a basket in the half court, finishing the first half with 13 points.
The Hogs could not get going offensively, and there was a massive disparity in shooting numbers in the first half. The Arkansas defense gambled and tried to jump passing lanes to get turnovers, but it allowed open shooters for the Bears, who shot 8-17 from 3-point range.
Arkansas was facing a 36-28 disadvantage at halftime. The Razorbacks continued to struggle with turnovers, and their nine giveaways in the half contributed greatly to the score going into the locker room.
The Razorbacks displayed new life in the second half. The Hogs came out of the break noticeably more aggressive and took the ball to the rim instead of settling for jump shots like they did in the first half.
Notae got the Razorbacks and the crowd back into the game with a series of steals that led to a run that put them back within two points of Mercer. The Bears came out of the timeout and immediately turned it over again, leading to an Arkansas layup that tied the game.
Notae continued his impressive evening and hit a three after a Mercer basket to take the lead 39-38. Another Razorback defensive stop followed, and Notae hit his fourth 3-pointer of the game to take a 42-38 lead. Notae led the Razorbacks with 30 points, 15 of which came from 3-point range.
“When I was coming up in high school, I would go to Mercer’s camp every year,” Notae said in the postgame press conference. “They didn’t offer me coming out of high school, so this game was personal for me.”
Mercer tried to keep it close, but the Razorbacks were defensively stifling, with 10 steals in the second half alone. Graduate transfer guard Chris Lykes got hot after a big 3 that gave the Razorbacks a 56-54 lead. The crowd at Bud Walton Arena got to its feet and back into the game after a Razorback steal led to a layup on the next defensive possession.
Mercer brought its deficit as close as 60-57 with fewer than five minutes remaining, but the team ran out of gas. Arkansas put its foot on the pedal and never let off as it finished the game with a 74-61 victory.
Transfer senior Au’Diese Toney filled up the stat sheet for the Razorbacks on Tuesday. Toney finished with 18 points on 7-9 shooting and had 11 rebounds, five of which were on the offensive glass.
“Toney was, and it wasn’t even close, player of the game,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said in the postgame press conference. “We didn’t run one play for him, and he scored 18 points in the most efficient way possible, going 7-9 from the field. He was phenomenal. I thought he really saved us.”
Ball movement continued to be a massive struggle for the Arkansas offense. The Razorbacks had just 13 assists compared to 15 turnovers.
“We have got to have a better assist-to-turnover ratio,” Musselman said. “We now have a body of work of three games of this, so that has to get better.”
The Razorbacks will take on Gardner-Webb at 2 p.m. Saturday in Bud Walton Arena. The game will be streamed on the SEC Network+.