FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas owns the third-ranked defense in Division I and it was on full display Friday against South Dakota in a 77-56 victory.
The undefeated Razorbacks (5-0) entered the game allowing just 45.3 points per game through its first four and opponents were shooting just 32 percent. It took all of about seven minutes for that defense to smother the Coyotes.
A 16-2 run in the middle of the first half gave the Razorbacks a 17-point lead before the third media timeout. Arkansas built its 39-24 halftime advantage by getting buckets from all eight players who saw time.
The most significant contributor was Jimmy Whitt, who tied a career-high with 24 points on 11 of 14 shooting, mostly from unpopular spots on the floor.
“For all those analytic guys who think the mid-range game has gone out of basketball, welcome to Jimmy Whitt’s world,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said.
Every time South Dakota managed to get within a possession of making it a single-digit deficit, Whitt responded, defensively and offensively.
Arkansas had allowed South Dakota (5-1) to pull within 10 points with 7:45 left, but the Coyotes managed just one more field goal the rest of the way. South Dakota, which led the nation in 3-point shooting, knocking down 51 percent of their tries beyond the arc, managed to go just 3 of 12 from deep Friday.
“Obviously coming into the game, 3-point defense was really going to be the name of the game. I thought our guys stepped up to the challenge of defending the 3-point line,” Musselman said.
Arkansas received just 5 points from its leading scorer, Isaiah Joe, who entered averaging 20.5 per game, but Whitt, who also had three steals, started the 15-2 run in those final minutes that sealed the game.
“I think it was one of those games where I had the hot hand,” Whitt said. “My teammates, every time down the court, were telling me to shoot it.”
South Dakota was led by Tyler Hagadorn’s 15 points, 13 of which were scored in the second half.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks continued their perfect start under first-year coach Eric Musselman. Arkansas has started the season 5-0 for the first time since the 2014-15 season. Combined with the impressive defensive statistics, Musselman’s team has outplayed its preseason projection to finish 11th in the SEC. The Razorbacks have never finished that low since the league shed its Eastern and Western divisions for a combined conference in 2010-11.
South Dakota: The Coyotes, picked second in the Summit League in the preseason, looked the part of such at times, lingering with Arkansas better than any of the Razorbacks’ previous four opponents until urgency in the final eight minutes led to ill-advised shots and a big Arkansas finish.
Arkansas and South Dakota had never met in basketball before Friday. A big reason why the two teams finally did was the connection between Musselman and South Dakota coach Todd Lee. Lee served as an assistant coach to Musselman when the two were together with the Rapid City Thrillers in the CBA in the early 1990s.
A LONG, STRANGE TRIP
Whitt had his best game in an Arkansas uniform, though this season isn’t his first, just his first in three years. He played his freshman year for the Razorbacks under then-coach Mike Anderson before transferring to SMU. Whitt returned to Arkansas as a graduate transfer this past offseason.
The Razorbacks will go to Atlanta on Monday for their first power-conference game of the season. Georgia Tech hosts, the Yellow Jackets having come off a 82-78 loss to rival Georgia earlier this week.
South Dakota next travels to California Baptist on Wednesday for a game against the Western Athletic Conference’s Lancers.