It was Trevor Releford's day, and what a way to send out one of the all-time best at UA. Between the 5 writers and dozens of contributors here at the blog, it's very rare that we can find much common ground on anything, but I feel comfortable speaking for all of us in saying that we have really enjoyed watching Trevor Releford play basketball and represent our University in a first class manner over the last four years.
Relly, Levi, and Shannon all had great days, but I am going to start where this game was won, and that's in the post with the bigs! Our inside game has been universally criticized all year long, by people including myself, but they came to play this weekend. Jimmie Taylor put up 10 points and 6 rebounds before finally fouling out. He has made tremendous progress since the beginning of the year. He seems to have finally realized he can do more than just block shots. If we can get him to understand the rule of verticality on defense, or at least make his fouls a little less obvious, he's going to be a stud in the near future. Carl somehow pulled down 7 rebounds! Carl, Jimmie, Shannon, and Coop, were all outstanding in getting their body on a man and boxing out. As a team, we out rebounded them 41-25, and held them to just 8 offensive rebounds. I'm too lazy to go back and look at the stats, but I don't think we've out-rebounded anybody by that margin all year. Cooper didn't shoot well, but he made good decisions and led the team with 7 boards. If our bigs can play like this on a consistent basis, this team is more than capable of making some noise next week.
Once again, I thought we had a great game plan. We essentially beat Arkansas at their own game. The Hogs like to press and take a lot of chances on defense. Rather than obsess over the tempo, we took advantage of our opportunities when their gambles in the press failed. I thought we were very well prepared for the press. Our guys would immediately move to the open area after releasing a pass, and when they tried to take the short passes to the middle away we weren't afraid to go over the top. Coach Grant also did a great job of using the bench, to the extent we have one. With a nearly 20 point lead in the first half, he gave Dakota Slaughter some playing time to rest some of the starters, and we were able to maintain the lead.
We played a man to man defense early which put a lot of pressure on the hogs. There's an old adage in basketball that says "pressing teams don't like to be pressed," which runs against the tenets of common sense as one would think a pressing team who sees full-court pressure in practice everyday would be used to it, but, even with a short bench, Coach Grant judicially used the press to prove the old adage correct. I particularly liked going to a full court man to man with a 20+ point lead out of a timeout late in the first half. We even pressed with a 23 point lead and under 8 minutes remaining in the second half. For a team that's had trouble finishing, this was a great message. It wasn't about trying to run up a score, it was about sending a message to finish the game. The hogs look totally shocked and confused.
Releford especially, but all of the guards, did a fantastic job of adapting to the way the game was being called. Despite the "new rules," it seemed like Arkansas was doing a lot of hand-checking and otherwise playing very physical on defense. Our guys kept their composure, and were strong with the basketball without being suckered into throwing elbows or hooking, and we only had 13 turnovers which isn't bad against a team like Arkansas. When we beat the press, we attacked the basket, rather than allowing them to set their defense like we did last time we played them in Fayetteville.
When Arkansas did set up their half court defense, we actually threw the ball into the post to challenge Portis. By attacking him, rather than shying away as we did in our first meeting, we got him in early foul trouble which seemed to throw their whole offense into a funk with him on the bench. Again, Jimmie Taylor deserves a ton of credit for his work in the post.
Also, when we beat the Arkansas press, they mostly settled into a 2-3 zone. Shannon and Levi did a great job of exploiting the short corner and burning them along the baseline. This opened things up for Releford to drive to the basketball and also knock down some open perimeter shots.
We led by 23 at halftime, and played mostly a 2-3 zone in the second half. Arkansas did get hot and make some 3s in the second half, but the design was to force them to take some time to work for their shots in every possession. We continued to double down on Portis in the post, and while they did make some 3s, they were never able to get into a transition game like they wanted, nor were they able to stop our offensive attack at the other end. I don't recall them ever cutting the lead to under 19 in the second half, the game was never in doubt. We did an outstanding job of getting back on defense every possession and moving our feet to stop the ball. Arkansas was never able to get into the type of game they prefer to play.
From the very beginning, I felt like this team was determined to win this one for Relly. We seemingly out-hustled them to every loose ball and played with more energy from the opening tip. Hopefully they carry that attitude to Atlanta.
While Releford rightly gets most of the attention on senior day, we shouldn't forget about Isiah Wilson, the walkon senior from Troy, AL. I thought it was a class act by Coach Grant to allow Wilson to start, and he even got an offensive rebound and a put back before being taken out of the game. With the big lead, he got to finish his career on the court, and got an old-fashioned 3 point play to finish with 5 points in his final game. He more than did his part in this victory, and it's great to see him finally get some meaningful playing time. A lot of fans don't realize how important guys like Isiah Wilson are to a program, challenging the regulars in practice on a day to day basis.
If I'm being nitpicking and looking for a negative, it's that we continue to struggle from the free throw line. Even Relly, who was once automatic, has struggled the last few games. He was only 7 of 10 and we were a respectable 19 of 25 for the game.
The crowd was decent, not great, but not awful for senior day. I would estimate close to 8,000 in the house. I was particularly disappointed in the student turnout, as less than half of the student section was full. Of course, the weather was nice and the baseball team was playing at the same time, and fans can bring alcohol into the outfield there, so it's somewhat understandable why that was the case. Nevertheless, the fans who did show up were knowledgeable, loud, and into the game even before the tip. As Tony Giles read off the lengthy list of Releford's accomplishments, it was impossible to hear the details, as all of the fans in attendance were appropriately showing their appreciation. Coach Pujol was visible shaken up during the ceremonies, and Releford couldn't manage to smile, as he was obviously fighting back emotions. It seemed to effect his game in the first couple of minutes, but he quickly settled down and was back to his old self. I'm glad his family was able to make to the game. They seemed to really enjoyed being here, and I was happy to see several fans after the game thanking Trevor's mother for sharing her son with us for these last four years. She seemed truly appreciative of the support.
Up next, the new season! The great thing about college basketball, is nothing that has happened to this point matters. Theoretically, we still have a chance to win a national championship. Everybody has a clean slate, and we just beat a team on a 6 game winning streak who was playing arguably the best ball of anybody in the conference. With the win, we get the 10 seed which means both avoiding the Florida side of the bracket and not having to play on Wednesday. We will face LSU Thursday night at 6pm CST. The winner will play Kentucky at the same time Friday night. LSU is a tough matchup for us, even though we beat them at home earlier in the year. We will need another great game from our bigs to advance to Friday night.