Little Rock – The crowd at Verizon Arena grew restless as Arkansas struggled through a non-conference matchup with unheralded 4-7 UTSA.
Nearly everyone in the building held their breath as much of the second half ticked away without the Razorbacks gaining much ground on a scrappy Steve Henson coached team that came to play.
Unfortunately, the Razorbacks sluggish start may have been attributed to several factors.
The main factor being the surprising two-point first-half output from NBA lottery pick Daniel Gafford, who started slow but trended late finishing with a pedestrian double-double (15 points, 14 rebounds).
With less than two minutes remaining, the outcome was still in doubt and the young Razorbacks - who are without a single senior on the team – were being littered with derogatory chants comparing its play with their football brethren who produced a paltry 2-10 record this season.
It wasn’t until talented freshman guard Isaiah Joe finished 6-for-6 from the free throw line down the stretch to close out the Roadrunners that Arkansas was able to finally exhale and send 13,363 Hog fans to the exits happy after their fifth consecutive win in North Little Rock.
Each time they needed a basket or a play to keep the upset-minded Roadrunners early in the contest, it was Joe who kept the Razorbacks in striking distance of the upset-minded Roadrunners with his precise three-point shooting.
Joe, a 6-foot-2 inch Fort Smith native, finished with a game-high 21 points - including 5-of-9 from behind the arc in the first half alone - as he outdueled UTSA’s Jhivvan Jackson who tallied 20 for the Roadrunners.
Although it was Joe’s sharp shooting that kept Arkansas afloat in the first half, Razorbacks head coach Mike Anderson opted to take his playmaker off the floor early in the second half following a couple of uncharacteristic turnovers with the Razorbacks clinging to a slim 39-36 lead.
“They were just careless mistakes, to be honest with you,'' Joe said. ''You're going to have those games. You just have to bounce back from it. We are put through a lot of these situations in practice. So all we had to do was go out and execute.”
When Joe returned, he buried his fifth trey to put his team ahead to stay and then proceeded to make all six of his free throws over the course of the final thirty seconds in helping the Razorbacks grind out a 79-67 victory.
“He (Joe) was a big difference when he was on the floor.” Henson said afterward. “He was what we thought he was on film. A great shooter and was a very big part in what they do.”
Joe had already posted a career high on Dec. 3 by scoring 34 points — 17 in each half — and made 10-of-13 shots from 3-point range in leading the Razorbacks to a 121-89 victory over Florida International in joining Courtney Fortson as the only Razorback freshman to be named SEC Player of the Week.
Although much of the buzz in Fayetteville predictably centers on Gafford, Joe had elicited his own noise before he even reached campus with numerous accolades of his own.
Joe was named both the USA TODAY and Gatorade Arkansas Player of the Year and was touted as the second ranked player in the state, leading 7-A Northside to consecutive state championships.
With the start of the SEC season in College Station on January 5 against Texas A@M a few weeks away, expect many teams to game plan for Gafford but if the early season is any indication, expect those same defenses to now include Joe in their crosshairs as well.
“We know that most teams will be keying on (Daniel) Gafford so it will my job to make shots and open up the floor for the rest of our guys.” Joe said.