FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Tony Jones did his best Bruce Pearl impression on Saturday.
Filling in for the suspended Tennessee coach, Jones looked every bit like his mentor. There was the foot stomp, the head shake after a debated call and a series of flailing arm waves throughout the Volunteers’ 68-65 loss to Arkansas.
After a traveling call early in the second half, there was even an animated pounding of the scorer’s table that left Jones wincing and shaking his hand. His real pain, however, came in watching Tennessee fall behind by as many as 13 points and lose its Southeastern Conference opener for the first time in the Pearl era.
“It hurts right now,” Jones said of his hand. “I hope I didn’t break my hand by hitting it so hard.”
Of course, Pearl wasn’t on the bench for the Volunteers (10-5) for this conference opener. Pearl is suspended for Tennessee’s first eight conference games for misleading NCAA investigators during an ongoing probe into recruiting.
That left Jones, the associate head coach who last served as coach for a full game during AAU basketball in 1993. With close to two decades of collegiate experience on the bench as an assistant since, it didn’t take long for the usual highs and lows of coaching to set in.
Most of the emotions were on the low side for Jones, who watched as Arkansas took an early lead, led by one at halftime and trailed only briefly in the second half on the way to the win.
“I’ve been doing it for 17 years at the Division I level, working for one of the best coaches in the business collegiately in Bruce Pearl,” Jones said. “I’ve been his right-hand man for the last 10 years, so I’m more than prepared.”
The Razorbacks (11-3, 1-0) entered the game coming off the worst loss of coach John Pelphrey’s Arkansas career, a 33-point defeat at the hands of No. 12 Texas. They got an early boost against the Volunteers from forwardMarshawn Powell, who finished with 14 points in just his second start of the season.
The preseason All-SEC first-team selection by the coaches has been slowed for most of the season while recovering from a broken foot suffered in the offseason, and he was also suspended for a game two weeks ago.
Powell attempted Arkansas’ first three shots as it built an early lead, but Tennessee answered with an 8-0 run to go up 15-10. The Razorbacks answered with a 7-0 run of their own, bookended by a pair of baskets by Powell, to go back up 17-15.
Arkansas didn’t trail for the remainder of the half, though Tennessee tied the game three times. Rotnei Clarke, who had 15 points, scored the Razorbacks final six points of the half to help hold on to a 30-29 halftime lead.
“I thought our guys showed incredible toughness,” Pelphrey said. “I think a lot of people may have been questioning what we were going to get today after the other day, so it was good to see them show some resiliency.”
Tennessee briefly led 31-30 to start the second half after a dunk by Tobias Harris, who finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds, but Arkansas answered with one of Clarke’s four 3-pointers and didn’t trail again. The Razorbacks led by as many as 13 points at 57-44 after a Jeff Peterson layup on the fast break off an assist from Julysses Nobles.
The assist was one of eight in the game for Nobles, but the Volunteers rallied with a 9-0 run to close the lead to 57-53 after a 3-pointer by Melvin Goins.Delvon Johnson answered with back-to-back inside baskets for Arkansas, including an alley-oop dunk and three-point play off a pass from Nobles to go up 62-55.
“I knew we needed big plays down the stretch,” Nobles said. “I was just trying to do whatever I could to get my teammates a win.”
Johnson led the Razorbacks with 17 points, 11 in the second half, and hit a free throw to put the Razorbacks up 67-63. John Fields‘ quick dunk on the other end brought Tennessee to within 67-65 with 22 seconds remaining.
After Peterson hit a free throw for Arkansas to go up 68-65 with 19 seconds left, Harris’ open 3-point look for Tennessee from the right baseline went long at the buzzer.
Afterward, Jones said he learned a lesson moving ahead to the Volunteers’ game with Florida.
“Win the next one,” he said.