Michael Qualls’ incredible buzzer-beating putback slam lifts Arkansas past Kentucky
Were there any exciting endings across the college hoops landscape on Tuesday? Oh, that’s right.
After Arkansas’s Rashad Madden miss with the final seconds of overtime ticking off the clock, Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison got caught watching the action. Michael Qualls did not, and Arkansas picked up a huge 87-85 win over Kentucky in one of the craziest, most emphatic finishes to a basketball game you will ever see.
OK, are we all calmed down? Good, because this game wasn’t just about Qualls’ heroics. It was also about an Arkansas team getting a win it desperately needed after losing to No. 7 Florida in overtime last week, and the continued youthful transgressions of a Wildcat squad that can’t seem to get on a meaningful roll this season.
Let’s start with the Razorbacks. Before Tuesday night, this was a team with two solid, though not spectacular, wins over Minnesota and SMU. It also had one bad loss to Texas A&M, which is currently ranked 140th in RPI. Looking for a victory that could truly catch the collective eyes of the selection committee, it let a six-point lead with fewer than five minutes left against Florida slip away. The Razorbacks looked ready to duplicate that ignominious feat against Kentucky, as they got caught in a bad rotation allowing Andrew Harrison to bury a game-tying three with one second remaining in regulation.
Again, the Razorbacks led for the entire back-half of overtime and were one rebound away from securing the victory in more conventional fashion. However, Alex Poythress skied for a rebound of a James Young missed triple, and the ball eventually ended up in Young’s hands yet again. He didn’t falter a second time, and the game looked destined for a second overtime before Qualls blew the lid off Bud Walton Arena.
This win alone won’t be what puts Arkansas in the NCAA tournament; Kentucky doesn’t carry that sort of weight just yet. What it does do is put the Razorbacks into the national bubble consciousness. In the middle of January, that isn’t a bad place to be. Unfortunately for Mike Anderson’s bunch, the SEC won’t afford it many opportunities for resume-building victories. They won’t play Florida again unless the two meet in the conference tournament, though they will get a return date with the Wildcats in Lexington in late February. Still, three of their next five contests are road dates with Tennessee and LSU and a home game against Missouri. If they can win two of those, they could be on the right side of the bubble at the start of February.
Every time it looks like Kentucky is maturing, they drop a game in which mental mistakes play a key part. This time, their half-court offense completely bogged down in the second half, and ill-timed turnovers, not to mention one key missed boxout, contributed to another damaging loss. For all the talk about how dangerous the Wildcats are thanks to Julius Randle, Poythress, the Harrison twins, James Young and Willie Cauley-Stein, their best win is against a Louisville team that has been one of the most disappointing squads in the country. They’ve played four games against teams ranked in the top 40 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, the same four of which (Louisville, Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina) are inside the top 50 in RPI. They’re 1-3 in those games.
What fit of indiscretion did them in against Arkansas? Turnovers. The Wildcats turned the ball over 17 times, resulting in 24 points for the Razorbacks. Meanwhile, they forced just six Arkansas turnovers. Randle and Andrew Harrison gave it away five times apiece. Kentucky dominated the stat sheet in all other facets of the game. They got 50 rebounds to Arkansas’ 33. They shot nearly 50-percent from the floor while holding Arkansas to 37.7 percent. Despite their huge edge in rebounds, however, the turnover differential helped Arkansas attempt 13 more shots on the night.
Defense continues to be a bugaboo for the Wildcats. They’re ranked 49th in KenPom’s adjusted defense rankings, a problem that showed up again on Tuesday. They focused on their offensive strengths, getting the ball into the paint and putting up just 11 three-point attempts, but it still wasn’t enough to overcome an inability to protect the ball and take it away on the other end.