Drew Pember, UNC Asheville look to upset No. 10 Arkansas

Arkansas lost a key piece when Trevon Brazile sustained a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago, but freshman Jordan Walsh has stepped up his game and appears to be an apt replacement.

Winners of six straight games, the No. 10 Razorbacks (10-1) will play one more nonconference game before Southeastern Conference play opens, facing UNC Asheville on Wednesday in Fayetteville, Ark.

A 6-foot-5 forward, Walsh had an important discussion with coach Eric Musselman after Brazile — a 6-10 sophomore who was off to a fine start — went down with a torn ACL against UNC Greensboro on Dec. 6.

“It gave me a lot of confidence,” said Walsh, who scored a career-high 18 points in Arkansas’ 76-57 over visiting Bradley on Saturday. “Muss told me before the Oklahoma game, ‘Just play with more confidence.’ As soon as he told me that, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m fixing to turn up.'”

Walsh took that to heart before the contest against the Braves, the Razorbacks’ annual lone game in North Little Rock, Ark.

The Desoto, Texas, native was a perfect 7-for-7 from the field with a 3-pointer, plus he chalked up four steals, three rebounds and an assist. He netted 16 of his game-high 18 points in the first half, outscoring Bradley 16-14 in the opening 14:21.

Musselman noticed the change in Walsh and knows the reason why.

“Jordan Walsh just keeps getting better,” the fourth-year coach said. “You can see his confidence continue to grow each game. The last two games the energy that he’s played with has been really, really on another level. He’s playing with great confidence, No. 1.”

Razorbacks freshman standout Nick Smith Jr., who missed the first six games with a minor knee injury, went to the locker room early in the second half on Saturday, but Musselman said the guard is fine and is expected to play against UNC Asheville.

The Bulldogs (8-4) are coming off a dramatic 74-73 win at East Tennessee State on Saturday in which one of their go-to players — Drew Pember — stole the show at the buzzer.

With his team trailing 73-71 and inbounding the ball from under its hoop with 1.2 seconds left, Pember sank a 3-pointer from six feet beyond the top of the arc. The senior, who began his college career at Tennessee, was then mobbed by teammates.

The Big South Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year a year ago and the conference’s Preseason Player of the Year as voted by coaches this season, the 6-foot-10 forward is leading the team in points (19.7 per game), rebounds (9.5) and blocks (2.9) in another standout campaign.

Pember, sharpshooting guard Tajion Jones (14.8 points per game) and swingman Jamon Battle (10.8 ppg) allow coach Mike Morrell to send out a strong offensive unit each night.

Jones, an Oak Ridge, Tenn., product in his fifth year, was involved in two long-range records during the Bulldogs’ 94-84 win at South Carolina State on Dec. 13. In his career-high-tying 30-point showing, Jones made 8 of 10 3-point attempts — matching a single-game school record for treys — and broke the all-time mark for most career 3-pointers.

“It’s really an honor,” said Jones. “I’ve put in a lot of work since I’ve been here … countless hours of work and extra shots at practice, in the morning, summers. Lot of work that finally paid off.”

Jones, who is now up to 300 career 3-pointers, broke the old school mark of 296 held by Josh Kohn.

–Field Level Media