No. 18 Arkansas made it 13 wins in its last 14 games on Saturday by knocking off No. 6 Kentucky 75-73 at Bud Walton Arena in a thrilling SEC showdown on CBS that featured 17 lead changes. The Razorbacks (23-6, 12-4 SEC) got 30 points from JD Notae and big second half contributions from Jaylin Williams and Stanley Umude to outlast a Wildcats’ team that rallied from an early 13-point deficit to take the lead in the second half.
Williams hit a jumper to give Arkansas the lead with 1:22 remaining and then knocked down a pair of free throws with 36 seconds remaining to put the Razorbacks ahead 73-70. Kentucky’s Keion Brooks Jr. missed a 3-point attempt that would have tied the game with 23 seconds left, and the Razorbacks held on from there.
In its last three home games, Arkansas has knocked off the SEC’s three highest-ranked teams in Auburn, Tennessee and now Kentucky. Making Saturday’s outcome even more impressive for Arkansas was the fact that Kentucky (23-6, 12-4) had its full roster with point guards Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington each back after missing two games due to injury.
UK star big man Oscar Tshiebwe turned in another monster performance with 30 points and 18 rebounds. But the Wildcats made just 4 of 15 attempts from 3-point range as outside marksman Kellan Grady never got going after sitting much of the first half with two fouls. The outcome will leave Auburn in solo possession of first place in the SEC standings regardless of whether it beats Tennessee on Saturday.
First fully healthy loss
Arkansas became the first team since Notre Dame on Dec. 11 to beat Kentucky when the Wildcats were at full strength with both Washington and Wheeler available for the full game. When the Wildcats lost at LSU on Jan. 4, it was after Wheeler was knocked out just four minutes in. When they lost at Auburn on Jan. 22, it was after Washington left midway through the first half. Wheeler then also had to leave during a key time in the second half against Auburn after running into a pick.
Finally, in UK’s only other SEC loss before Saturday, the Wildcats were without Washington for most of the game at Tennessee last week. With better injury luck, UK might still be in position to win the SEC regular season title. But Arkansas showed Saturday that the Wildcats are by no means invincible even when fully healthy.
Notae may be one of the few players in the SEC capable of stealing a vote or two from Tshiebwe in the conference’s Player of the Year race. He showed why on Saturday by carrying the Razorbacks in the first half. Notae finished 13 of 26 from the floor as he reached the 30-point plateau for the third time this season. The 6-1 guard also turned in eight assists. Beating out Tshiebwe for the league’s top honor will be nearly impossible, but this performance cemented Notae’s place as a first-team All-SEC performer.
Even in defeat, though, it was hard to argue against Tshiebwe being the most dominant player on the floor. It was his second 30-point performance of the season. He scored UK’s first nine points and then flashed some rarely seen passing skills with a couple of key assists out of double teams that helped the Wildcats get going.
With 4.4 seconds still remaining on the clock and Arkansas leading by five, Kentucky’s bench players left for the locker room. Their early departure from the sideline came as security personnel clad in yellow shirts lined the stands, presumably to dissuade fans from storming the court.
It also came less than a week after a sport-wide referendum on the traditional postgame handshake line began following Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s open-handed on a strike on a Wisconsin assistant.
Did UK’s decision to pull an early exit bother Arkansas?
“Nah,” Notae told reporters. “We won.”
While there didn’t appear to be much bad blood because of UK’s early exit, the final seconds were certainly significant. Arkansas held a 5-point lead and was comfortably in position to cover a two-point spread until Washington banked in a 3-pointer as time expired that turned the outcome into a push for any bettors that took Arkansas -2.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism