FAYETTEVILLE (AP) — Michael Qualls struggled mightily to open Southeastern Conference play for Arkansas.
The sophomore appears to have found his game lately, just in time for what the Razorbacks hope is a push toward an NCAA tournament berth.
Qualls continued his late-season resurgence on Wednesday night, scoring 20 points as Arkansas (17-9, 6-7 SEC) held off a second-half rally by South Carolina for a 71-64 win.
The Razorbacks led by as many as 17 points in the first half before Brenton Williams — who finished with 29 points — spearheaded a furious rally by the Gamecocks (10-16, 3-10), who tied the game at 55-55 late after an inside basket by Laimonas Chatkevicius.
That’s when Qualls, who shot 11 of 56 (19.6 percent) over the first six games of conference play, connected on a 3-pointer to put Arkansas back up 58-55. It was a lead the Razorbacks wouldn’t relinquish.
Qualls finished 7 of 14 from the field, including 4 of 7 on 3-pointers. After leading Arkansas in scoring for much of the season — prior to his early SEC woes — he’s hit 11 of 20 3-pointers of his last four games, and he’s scored in double figures in five of the last Razorbacks’ six games.
"It’s important for our basketball team," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. "He’s a big part of what we do. I think his energy is contagious, and we’re seeing that."
Williams finished 11 of 20 from the field for South Carolina, including 6 of 13 on 3-pointers.
The Gamecocks, who finished 22 of 59 (37.3 percent) from the field, are now 0-10 on the road this season and have lost 17 straight road games. South Carolina hasn’t won on the road since an overtime win at LSU on Jan. 16, 2013.
"I think Arkansas’ good," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. "I said it before the game, and my opinion doesn’t change. They’re starting to play Mike Anderson basketball, and it’s fun to watch."
Arkansas led 62-55 with 2:35 remaining, but the Gamecocks closed to within 66-64 with 21.5 seconds left after a layup by Williams.
The Razorbacks went up 67-64 after a free throw by Coty Clarke with 16.6 seconds remaining, and South Carolina followed with a turnover on the other end — a play on which forward Michael Carrera dribbled to the sideline and toward Williams, who lost the ball out of bounds in the traffic.
The turnover led to four free throws by Arkansas’ Ky Madden and Alandise Harris to close out the win.
"We tried to run the play that we normally run, and Arkansas played it pretty well and trapped me on the sideline, and it went off me and out of bounds," Williams said.
Clarke added 12 points and 12 rebounds for Arkansas, which has won two straight games and four of five overall.
The Razorbacks led by as many as 17 points in the first half, but — led by Williams — the Gamecocks used a 15-0 run to close within 40-38 early in the second half. Sindarius Thornwell and Brian Steele capped the run with back-to-back 3-pointers for South Carolina, which finished 8 of 19 on 3-pointers.
Qualls, who nearly matched his career best of 21 points, responded by scoring seven of Arkansas’ next eight points to help the Razorbacks go up 48-40. He also added eight rebounds to help Arkansas overcome a night when one of its leading scorers — Madden — was held without a field goal.
"Every night, someone different steps up," Qualls said. "That’s a real big sign that we’re not just depending on one or two guys. Anybody can come and step up and play."
The Gamecocks had won two straight conference games for the first time since 2011 entering the game, and they overcame early shooting woes to take a 21-20 lead after Williams capped a run of eight straight points with a basket.
Led by Qualls and Clarke, who combined for 18 points in the first half, Arkansas — which has now won four of five games — responded with a 20-2 run to go up 40-23 late in the half. Mardracus Wade capped the run with a 3-pointer for the Razorbacks, who were 14-of-26 (53.8 percent) shooting in the first half.
"That’s when the game got away from us," Martin said. "For us to ... have a chance to win, makes me proud of our guys."