STARKVILLE, Miss. — Arkansas guard Anthlon Bell’s shot wasn’t falling.
And his minutes were dropping. In fact, the player regarded as Arkansas’ best long-range shooter when the season began was struggling so much from the field he had fallen out of coach Mike Anderson’s rotation.
But Bell had to believe the slump couldn’t last even though it began in December, stretched into January and continued throughout most of this month.
“I just stayed with it,” Bell said. “I stayed in the gym, stayed with what Coach was saying. Just stay engaged, and it just happened for me (Saturday).”
Bell’s patience paid off during Arkansas’ 73-69 win against Mississippi State in front of an announced crowd of 6,981 in Humphrey Coliseum. The sophomore scored a career-high 19 points, which helped the Razorbacks build a 15-point lead and hold on late to end their 12-game losing streak in Starkville.
It was an unexpected performance for a player who had logged just 11 minutes in Arkansas’ previous five games. He hadn’t scored since Feb. 1. So it shocked Mississippi State, which suffered its ninth straight loss under coach Rick Ray.
“He wasn’t on the scouting report,” Ray said. “He really came in and gave them a lift and did a good job. He had 19 points, but he only played 17 minutes. …
“Obviously he came off the bench and gave those guys a huge lift.”
Arkansas (18-9, 7-7 in SEC) needed every point en route to grabbing its second road win of the season. It was the program’s first in Humphrey Coliseum since 2000, when Anderson was an assistant on Nolan Richardson’s staff.
Bell led the way with 12 points in the first half, which topped his production in Arkansas previous seven games. He had managed just 34 points in SEC play entering the game, but got to double figures in a hurry after knocking down back-to-back 3-pointers that gave the Razorbacks a 35-24 lead with 7:07 remaining in the first half.
“He was a big shock,” MSU guard Craig Sword said. “When he started hitting shots, we were like, ‘Man, we’re going to have to try and stay on him.’ He hit big shots.”
Bell wasn’t alone in the success. Arkansas shot the ball well in the opening minutes, knocking down four of five 3-pointers to charge out to a 14-8 lead.
Anderson believed the hot start put Mississippi State (13-14, 3-11) on its heels, but the Razorbacks couldn’t deliver a knockout blow. The Bulldogs started two point guards to contend with Arkansas’ pressure and found success driving to the basket.
Mississippi State scored 18 of their first 20 points in the paint Saturday with Trivante Bloodman and Little Rock native I.J. Ready getting to the basket.
“That’s what they do,” Anderson said. “They attack and get to the basket and get to the free-throw line.”
It helped Mississippi State gain some momentum late in the half, cutting Arkansas’ 11-point lead to 39-35 at the break. The game remained close early in the second half, too. In fact, the Bulldogs cut it to 39-38 and had a chance to take the lead.
But the Razorbacks never fell behind in the second half and Ray credited Anderson for switching Arkansas’ defense to build a double-digit lead. Arkansas backed out of their press and went to a 2-2-1 zone, which played a part in a 16-5 run.
Arkansas had three steals that led to points during the spurt.
“Our 2-2-1 kept them off guard,” Anderson said. “Not only did it keep them off guard, it kept them out of the lanes. … I thought in the second half we did a much better job of containing them and protecting the basket.”
Bell also scored seven points during the run, starting it with a jump shot that pushed Arkansas’ lead to 56-51. His 3-pointer a little later gave the Razorbacks a 12-point edge, then Bell made a layup off a steal by Moses Kingsley to push it to 14.
Arkansas led 71-56 — its largest of the game — when guard Ky Madden made a free throw with 6:45 left. But the hefty cushion didn’t last. The Razorbacks scored just two points the rest of the game while Mississippi State charged back.
The Bulldogs went on a 9-0 run to cut Arkansas’ lead to six points. The spurt ended when Michael Qualls hit a 16-foot jumper with 2:54 left to take a 73-65 lead. But it was Arkansas’ final basket as the Hogs relied on defense to hold on.
Ready made it a four-point game when he went 1-for-2 from the free-throw line with 49 seconds remaining. The Bulldogs couldn’t get any closer, stumbling through a sloppy final possession that ended with a missed 3-point shot.
“The set that was called was for us to attack them,” MSU forward Colin Borchert said. “They didn’t press. They showed it, then backed up. So we didn’t know what to do. … We just kind of jumbled around.”
Borchert finished with 21 points, which was one off his career high, to lead the Bulldogs. Mississippi State shot 44.1 percent, but went 10-for-21 (47.6 percent) from the free-throw line. The four-point loss was Mississippi State’s closest during a nine-game losing streak, which began on Jan. 25.
Arkansas shot 43.8 percent and got 19 points off Mississippi State’s 16 turnovers. Qualls scored 15 points, while Portis added 13. Forward Coty Clarke struggled offensively, but finished with 2 points, 9 rebounds and a career-high 7 assists.
Then there was Bell. The 19-point effort topped his career high of 18, which came in the season opener against SIU-Edwardsville. It was just the fifth time he had scored in double figures this season and three of those efforts came in November.
“Of course it’s frustrating knowing I’m capable of making shots and just not making them,” said Bell, who credited coaches, teammates and family for helping him work through the struggles. “I knew I just had to stick with it. If I’m not going to stick with it, the slump is going to continue. So I just stayed with it, stayed positive and made sure I got up a lot of shots before and after practice.”
Anderson said it was one of those days where Bell took “his practice to the game” and it came at an important time. Arkansas — which started 2-6 in the SEC — has climbed back to .500 in conference play four conference games remaining.
“He came in and changed the game,” Clarke said. “It was big for him, and I’m glad to see him come back to where he needs to be.”