Second-half surge saves Hogs’ bacon

Arkansas guard Tramon Mark shoots while Abilene Christian guard Ali Abdou Dibba during an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.(UA Athletics)

“Stunk, stunk, and stunk some more,” was Eric Musselman’s opening assessment of his Arkansas Razorbacks’ play in the first half of their 83-73 victory over the Abilene Christian Wildcats on Thursday.

The Razorbacks rallied from a seven-point half-time deficit to win comfortably, but Musselman was entirely frustrated by his team’s first-half play, which was laden with turnovers and mired by a woeful team defensive performance.

It was another frustrating game for the Head Hog and Razorback fans who were deathly quiet in the first half as the Wildcats had their way driving the lane against the Hogs.

Musselman, who flew to his hometown of San Diego to visit family for Christmas, said he would have canceled the trip for himself if the Hogs’ had lost. Under NCAA regulations, the players have three mandatory days off for the holiday, but Musselman said he and his staff would have worked had the Wildcats’ seven-point halftime lead held up.

The Razorbacks turned the game around going with a four-guard lineup with Devo Davis playing the power forward spot as well as his larger teammates.

Sophomore guard Keyon Menifield Jr., who gained his eligibility after final exams and played in his first game as a Razorback last Saturday, may have secured the role of Arkansas’ starting point guard with a gritty 28-minute performance. The transfer from Washington scored 11 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, and had 2 assists.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: UNC Wilmington
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 30
Where: Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Next 5 games

Jan. 6 – Auburn, 1 p.m. (ESPN2)
Jan. 10 – at Georgia, 8 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Jan. 13 – at Florida, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Jan. 16 – Texas A&M, 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
Kan. 20 – South Carolina, 12 p.m. (SEC Network)

Musselman revealed that he first learned of Menifield while watching Pac-10 basketball from home after Razorback games last season, and became a fan of his quickness, tenacity, and energy.

Though Musselman had no prior connections with Menifield, he cold called the young man when he noticed his name in the transfer portal. After a Zoom call with Menifield and his mom, he committed to the Hogs and took an official visit to make sure of the decision.

Now his play has at least earned him considerably more playing time once the Razorbacks return from Christmas break Monday afternoon.

Though he came off the bench Thursday, one would guess that Tramon Mark will be back in the starting lineup when the Hogs return to play Dec. 30 against UNC Wilmington, a team that defeated Kentucky early in the season.

Mark had a double-double with 25 points and 11 rebounds, but perhaps the stat that most pleased Musselman were the two offensive rebounds Mark gathered. Trevon Brazile and Jalen Graham each had two offensive rebounds but both of them are 6-10 or taller. Mark is 6-5. Musselman has been on the team to hit the offensive glass all season but to no avail.

Khalif Battle was also instrumental in the come-back victory, scoring 18 points on 5 of 8 shooting from the field, and 3 of 4 shooting from behind the 3-point arc. Musselman was also encouraged by Battle’s defensive play in the second half.

Musselman took several verbal jabs at the play of his big men for their lack of production on the offensive glass, and was completely disappointed with the defensive play of the entire team in the first half.

Musselman said when the team returns from Christmas break, the Hogs will continue with two-a-day workouts up to the game with UNC Wilmington and perhaps beyond. The Razorbacks will have a week of practice before playing host to Auburn on Jan. 6 for their SEC opener at 1 p.m. on Jan. 6.