FAYETTEVILLE — Statistics assert Isaiah Joe shot the Arkansas Razorbacks past the Ole Miss Rebels, 76-72 in last Saturday’s SEC game in Oxford, Mississippi.
Given the Razorbacks trailed, 59-48 with 13:20 left and Joe, 7 of 13 threes and 5 for 5 from the line, in the second half scored 26 of his career-high tying 34 points, that statistical assertion is accurate.
It’s also incomplete. For it could be said Joe stole the Razorbacks past Ole Miss.
Arkansas’ sophomore guard via Fort Smith Northside made two key steals late leading to points as the Razorbacks, now 13-2 overall, 2-1 in the SEC, outscored Ole Miss, 21-7 off turnovers. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard also blocked two shots.
“I don’t think he’s a good defender — I think he’s a great defender,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “He’s long, he’s got great anticipation. He understands his assignment every night. There is absolutely no doubt he’s one of the best defenders in this league from a guard standpoint and I think he doesn’t get enough credit defensively.”
Doing other defensively and offensively make Jones all but irreplaceable even when his fabled threes aren’t falling, like his scoreless last 13 minutes of the first half after a quick eight points.
Defense, not shooting, was first foremost initiating Saturday’s comeback, Joe said.
“We came together as a team,” Joe said on the Razorbacks Radio Network postgame “We were digging ourselves a hole and we knew we had to get out if and find a way to figure out how. It had to start on the defensive end getting rebounds and getting stops and the offensive end would take care of itself. We did as great job getting steals, getting some big fast break points. We stayed poised at the offensive end, and we made our tough shots.”
Like Joe, customarily high-scoring junior guard Mason Jones showed he does more than score.
While scoring a solid 13 points, down six from his team-leading 19.4 average, Jones, only 3 of 12 from the field but 6 for 6 from the line, dished a career high nine assists.
“I was really proud of Mason not trying to force things,” Musselman said. “He recognized tonight that Isaiah was rolling and made some incredible passes.”
Whether it’s Joe or Jones or occasionally Desi Sills or often Jimmy Whitt midrange, these Razorbacks recognize a hot hand.
“The key is when you get a guy hot you’ve got to get him the ball,” Musselman said. “A bad shot when a guy is hot is better than a good shot or a wide open shot from somebody who is not really rolling. So incredible shot selection and incredible will to take big shots when you need them. And I’m most proud of the free throws down the stretch.”
Free throws led to one four-point play, a Joe fouled on a three and-one, and a five-point play with Adrio Bailey fouled underneath and sinking two as a Joe trey hit home.
Fifth-year senior graduate transfer Whitt’s two free throws with eight seconds left put the 76-72 margin beyond a desperation trey.
“Jimmy’s a grad man,” Joe said. “He doesn’t get rattled. So we knew he was going to knock those down.”
Whitt’s free throws iced it but like Joe, he said defense won it, especially putting the late second half brakes on Ole Miss guard Breein Tyree finishing with 27 points.
“Obviously we had big time offensive possessions, but if you can’t get stops coming at critical times you can’t win,” Whitt said.
Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis glumly concurred.
“At the end of the game they got the ball out of Breein’s hands three or four trips,” Davis said. “And nobody else on our team could make a play.”
That sure wasn’t scenario midway through the second half.
“It doesn’t matter what we’re down we believe we can win even when it looks bleak,” Musselman said postgame on SEC Network TV. “Obviously at that nine-minute mark we had no offensive flow and we weren’t getting defensive stops but the guys just kept plugging away. I thought from a competitive standpoint we were awesome. It’s going to be a great plane ride back.”
Splitting nail-biters on the SEC road last week losing 79-77 at LSU then overcoming Ole Miss, the Hogs are SEC home this week.
At Walton Arena on Wednesday, they host Vanderbilt at 7:30 p.m. on the SEC Network and 3 p.m. Saturday host Kentucky on ESPN.