FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The last time Arkansas beat Ole Miss, The Weakest Link was a hit television show. The Razorbacks turned their weak link into a school record Saturday with an 86-78 Southeastern Conference victory over the Rebels.
Arkansas made a school-record and SEC record-tying 48 free throws in improving to 9-6 overall and 1-3 in the league while Ole Miss drops to 8-6 and 0-3.
A crowd of 17,681 in Bud Walton Arena saw the Razorbacks, who with the victory matched last season’s win total, snap a seven-game losing streak to Ole Miss and beat the Rebels for the first time since Jan. 5, 2000, when UA claimed a 71-64 home victory. Included in UA’s 48-of-53 performance at the line was a streak of 28 consecutive made free throws in the second half.
The 48 free throws are a school record, topping the 46-of-65 effort against TCU in 1955. It also matches the SEC record set by Tennessee (48-59) against Kentucky in 1992. The NCAA record is 56 (in 70 attempts) by TCU against Eastern Michigan in 2000. The Razorbacks also set a Bud Walton Arena record for the number of free throws made and matched the record for attempts. UA was 35-of-53 against Northeastern Illinois in 1998.
Arkansas shot 90.6 percent at the line Saturday after entering the game shooting 62.2 percent for the year. In its three previous games, UA made just 17-of-39 free throws, 43.6 percent, including a two-of-10 performance against LSU 10 days ago.
The last time Arkansas beat the Rebels, UA second-year head coach Stan Heath was an assistant at Michigan State, watching the Spartans beat Penn State, 76-63, on the way to the 2000 national championship. The last time Arkansas made 40 free throws in a game, 41-of-49 against Kentucky in 1992, he was an assistant coach at Wayne State in Detroit, and Todd Day, Lee Mayberry and Oliver Miller were leading the Razorbacks to the SEC title in Arkansas’ first year as a league member.
“It’s been a long time coming because we’ve not been very consistent at the free-throw line,” Heath said. “It’s easy for 18- and 19-year-old kids to get their heads down, but we came together and got stronger as a group.”
Kendrick Davis was nine-of-nine, Eric Ferguson eight-of-eight and Billy Pharis two-of-two. Jonathon Modica was seven-of-eight and Vincent Hunter 12-of-14, but the big surprise was freshman Ronnie Brewer. He entered the game a 43.6 percent free-throw shooter (24-55), but canned 10-of-12 on Saturday to push his percentage to .507 (34-67).
“I’ve been working on slowing my shot down a bit to make free throws,” Brewer said. “It’s incredible to get to the line that many times. The coaches challenged me to make my free throws. I’ve been working on it a lot.”
A Justin Johnson layup pulled Ole Miss within 30-26 in the first half, but Arkansas closed the period with an 11-1 run to take a 41-27 lead at the break. Brewer had a dunk and two free throws around two free throws by Hunter, and Modica made a layup and Ferguson drained a three with 11 seconds left in the period.
“We did a good job all the way through the first half until about the four-minute mark,” Ole Miss head coach Rod Barnes said. “We didn’t finish the first half the way we are capable of doing.”
Arkansas shot 41.4 percent in the first half (12-29), but made just four shots in the second half. The Razorbacks were four of 15 from the field (.267) in the second period, but 35 of 38 at the line.
In the second half, Brewer missed a free throw with 17:02 to play, but the Razorbacks did not miss again until Brewer went one-of-two with 18 seconds to play. In between, UA made 28 straight free throws, and the Hogs needed them all.
“I don’t know if it was our guys fouling too much or playing too physical, but every time I looked out there, Arkansas was shooting free throws,” Barnes said.
Arkansas’ first two buckets of the second half, a three-pointer and then a layup on consecutive possessions by Ferguson, gave the Razorbacks a 50-31 lead with 15:20 left. A dunk by Hunter, UA’s third bucket, made it 56-38 at the 11:32 mark.
Two free throws each by Modica, Ferguson and Brewer gave Arkansas a 72-52 advantage with 4:53 remaining, but Aaron Harper scored the game’s next 11 points, nine on three-pointers, to pull the Rebels within 72-63 with 4:03 to go. A three-point play by Ed Glass cut the margin to 74-68 before Modica made Arkansas’ last field goal of the game, a three with 2:30 left for a 77-68 lead.
“Our guys never seem to make it easy,” Heath said. “We had a 20-point lead and thought we were in good shape.”
Ole Miss pulled within 79-73 on a free throw by Marvin Moore with 1:15 left, but Ferguson and Davis made the last four of UA’s 28 straight free throws for an 83-75 lead with 47 seconds left.
A three by Justin Reed cut the deficit to 83-78 for Ole Miss, but Brewer made the free throw with 18 seconds left and Pharis hit two at the line with three seconds to go for the final margin.
“A lot of the reason we have been losing has to deal with free throws so we have been working on them lately,” Hunter says. “It was big making them today. They made a run, and at the end free throws helped us to win the game.”
Ferguson, who was four of seven from the floor, led Arkansas with 19 points and three assists. Modica had 17 points and seven rebounds, Brewer 16 points and six boards, Hunter 14 points and a game-high nine rebounds, and Davis 11 points.
“Vincent Hunter was huge,” Heath said. “It was awesome to see five guys in double figures. You don’t want a one-man show. Hunter really set the tone. He was energetic and lively. He had a tough first half of the season, but now he’s coming on strong.”
Arkansas shot 36.4 percent from the field for the game and turned the ball over 14 times, but had a huge advantage at the free-throw line, where Ole Miss was 13-of-19, and had a 36-28 rebounding advantage.
Harper led Ole Miss, which shot 43.8 percent for the game and had 20 assists with only nine turnovers, with 22 points, followed by Johnson with 20 and Reed with 17.
Arkansas travels to Auburn on Wednesday for a 7 p.m. non-televised game.