OXFORD, Miss. – Manuale Watkins wasn’t the first scoring option on Arkansas’ final offensive play.
More like the fifth.
But, the sophomore was in the right place at the right time, sneaking behind Mississippi’s defense and catching a pass from Rashad Madden before hitting a short jumper with 6.4 seconds remaining to lift No. 24 Arkansas over Ole Miss 71-70 on Saturday night.
“I shoot that shot every day in practice. It felt good, and it went in for me,” said Watkins, who averages just 3.1 points per game.
Arkansas (20-5, 9-3 Southeastern Conference) won for the seventh time in eight games to take sole possession of second place in the league.
The loss snapped a six-game winning streak for Ole Miss. The Rebels (17-8, 8-4) trailed for nearly the entire game until LaDarius White hit a short jumper with 8:35 remaining to give them a 58-57 lead. It stayed close until the end, but Watkins’ jumper proved to be the difference.
Ole Miss’ Jarvis Summers had a chance to win it with a mid-range jumper in the final seconds, but it bounced off the back of the rim. M.J. Rhett and Stefan Moody led the Rebels with 16 points each.
“I told our team I didn’t think we lost this game. I thought Arkansas won it,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said.
Michael Qualls led Arkansas with 15 points. Anton Beard scored 14, hitting all five of his field goal attempts — including four from 3-point range.
It was a fast-paced game between two of the league’s best offenses, but only the Razorbacks were hitting shots with any regularity early. Arkansas jumped out to a 40-36 lead by halftime thanks to 51.4 percent shooting (18 of 35) from the field and 10 points from Bobby Portis.
Arkansas avenged a 96-82 home loss to Ole Miss last month. The Rebels shot 56.4 percent in that game, embarrassing the Razorbacks’ defense.
Arkansas was better on that end of the floor Saturday, holding Ole Miss to just 34.3 percent shooting in the first half. The Rebels stayed in the game thanks to 21 offensive rebounds and a 45-31 overall rebounding advantage.
“We really wanted to come in here, play hard and play some defense,” Watkins said. “We didn’t play good defense last time and they kicked our tail. We played a little harder on that end and the outcome was what we wanted.”
Ole Miss pushed into the lead late in the second half thanks to improved shooting. Rhett continually made 15-foot jumpers, finding small holes in the Arkansas defense and connecting on mid-range shots.
But, Arkansas stayed in it until the end and the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Watkins, who scored eight points in the game, had good touch on the game-winner after finding some room to work along the baseline.
“The trust factor is starting to take over with this team,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “It used to be where (Madden) would take that shot. Or Bobby (Portis). But he trusted Manuale Watkins to take that shot and Manuale came through.”
Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t shoot any free throws until Moses Kingsley went to the line for two free throws with 13:35 remaining.
Mississippi: Summers came in leading the league with an average of 5.5 assists in SEC games. He had six against the Razorbacks. … Ole Miss came in shooting 79.4 percent on free throws, which was tops in the country. The Rebels were 15 of 22 (68.2 percent) on Saturday.
Arkansas hosts Missouri on Wednesday.
Mississippi visits Mississippi State on Thursday.