Arkansas’ pursuit of its first NCAA tournament berth in seven seasons appears in fine shape but the team is staying motivated.
The 18th-ranked Razorbacks will try to extend their win streak to six games and secure their longest on the road in 13 seasons Saturday against Mississippi State.
Barring a collapse down the stretch, Arkansas (21-5, 10-3) looks like it will head to its first NCAA tournament since 2008. The Razorbacks stayed on track with an 84-69 victory over coach Mike Anderson’s former team, Missouri, on Wednesday.
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Michael Qualls led the way with 21 points, giving him an average of 18.3 in his last three games, and Arkansas stayed within three games of conference-leading Kentucky. The Razorbacks are also three games up in the race for one of the top four seeds in the SEC tournament and an automatic spot in the quarterfinals.
"We have a long way to go," forward Bobby Portis said. ”Even with our record being what it is, every day coach preaches staying humble and hungry."
Arkansas has aided its chances for a tournament berth with its most road victories in one season since 1997-98. The Razorbacks are 5-4 on the road, giving them a chance to finish above .500 there for the first time since going 7-3 in 1994-95.
They also have an opportunity to win three straight road contests in a single season for the first time since Nov. 28, 2001-Jan. 5, 2002.
"It tells me we’ve been consistent with our approach to games, whether at home or on the road," Anderson said. "Our guys are finding ways to win games. … We’ve grown from last year and gotten better. We’ve gotten mentally tougher and physically tougher."
They would guarantee at least a .500 road record with their second victory over Mississippi State this month. Their final two road games are against No. 1 Kentucky next Saturday and South Carolina on March 5.
Arkansas cruised to a 61-41 victory over the visiting Bulldogs (12-14, 5-8) on Feb. 7 by holding them to just nine points on 2-of-21 shooting in the first half. The Razorbacks also matched a season high by forcing 24 turnovers.
That defeat is among three in the last four games for Mississippi State and a 71-65 loss to Mississippi on Thursday gave the Bulldogs back-to-back home defeats for the first time this season.
Junior guard Craig Sword had 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting in that game and is averaging 18.0 on 58.2 percent shooting in his last seven. Sword was held to five points on 1-of-6 shooting in the loss at Arkansas.
Leading scorer Gavin Ware (10.1 ppg) was the Bulldogs’ only player in double figures against the Razorbacks with 16 points. Portis paced Arkansas with 19 points and 11 rebounds in its third straight win in the series.
The Razorbacks haven’t won four in a row over the Bulldogs since a seven-game run that ended in January 2001.
They snapped a 12-game losing streak at Mississippi State with a 73-69 win Feb. 22, with Anthlon Bell scoring a team-best 19 points in 17 minutes off the bench.