STARKVILLE, Miss. – Arkansas head coach Tom Collen made his team a promise before today’s game with Mississippi State.
“I told them that we weren’t going to let anyone push us around at the end of the game, and that we’d go big to have size inside,” Collen said.
Looking to his 6-3 junior college transfer Ashley McCray off the bench and starting seniors Ayana Brereton and Whitney Jones, the Razorbacks outrebounded Miss State and came away with their first Southeastern Conference win of the year, 65-62.
“We outrebounded them, and that margin might not seem like a lot, but in a game like this they were probably the difference makers,” Collen said. “We hammered the boards hard.”
The win was Arkansas’ first in SEC play this year, and breaks a five-game losing streak overall for the Razorbacks (12-8, 1-4). Miss State drops to 3-3 in SEC play and 15-5 overall. Arkansas outrebounded State, 42-40.
For the second straight game, McCray turned in a season high with 14 points, leading four Razorbacks in double digits.
A season high 12 rebounds from Brereton led to the senior’s first double-double of the year as she scored 10 points. Jones missed the double by a point with nine scored and 10 rebounds.
“We played big a little bit, and we stayed committed to having the big players on the floor,” Collen said. “Lele (Ashley McCray) had another great game for us and she was a big difference today.”
Freshman Ceira Ricketts led the Arkansas starters with 13 points, and fellow freshman Lyndsay Harris added 10.
Stung in their first four conference games by second half letdowns, Arkansas took a halftime lead, 36-32, and protected it during the tough early minutes of the second half, then slammed the door shut in the final three minutes.
“We played tough today, the first half was the best first half that we’ve had so far, and our problem has been we’ve only played 32 minute games,” Collen said. “We knew we had to go all 40 minutes to play hard, and the bottom line was we did.”
Tied heading into the last four minutes, Arkansas outscored the Lady Bulldogs 5-2 in a defensive battle to the finish.
State had the chance to take the lead twice in the final minute, but the Razorback defense frustrated the Lady Bulldogs.
Leading by one with less than 20 seconds to play, 63-62, Arkansas had to in-bound the ball four times under the State goal before State’s Armelie Lumanu fouled Ricketts with 13.1 seconds to play. The freshman missed the front side of the one-and-one, but McCray’s stick-back made the score 65-62 with 8.8 seconds to play.
A game of runs early, the teams traded buckets to open the second half until a 7-0 burst started by a pair of fast-break opportunities – a runaway three-pointer from Harris and a Arnold steal to Jones layup – pushed Arkansas to a 54-45 lead with just under 10 minutes to play.
State worked its way back into the game by using its shot-blocking inside power with Chanel Mokango rejecting three of her game-leading five over a three-minute span. Tysheka Grimes’ stick-back with 3:51 to play tied the game at 60-60 with 3:59 to play.
Free throws played a significant role in the game. Arkansas shot only eight free throws, but made six of them. State went to the line 20 times, but struggled all day hitting only 10.
The Razorbacks pounced on State from the tipoff with a 12-2 run that eventually led to a 15-4 lead over the Lady Bulldogs. Brereton had two buckets for five points in the start, but it was a team effort as the scoring was spread over four players.
After shooting a mere 12% from the field in the opening five minutes, the Lady Bulldogs found their shot and launched a 17-0 run fueled by deep three-pointers by Rack, who hit three during the run to a 23-17 lead with nine minutes left in the half.
Arkansas’ defense clamped down on State at the end of the half, allowing only two points in the last three minutes. A pair of McCray layups sandwiched by three-pointers from Brereton and Harris completed a flip of the six-point spread from MSU back to Arkansas. The 12-4 run to finish the half sent Arkansas to the locker room with 36-32 lead for the Razorbacks.
Arkansas stays on the road next Thursday at Vanderbilt at 8 p.m.