Published February 27, 2014
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – There's just no way to forget the sequence that led to Michael Qualls soaring in for the put-back dunk that gave Arkansas an overtime win over Kentucky last month.
Qualls, however, is doing his best to leave the dramatic ending behind him — particularly as the surging Razorbacks (18-9, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) prepare for a rematch against the No. 17 Wildcats on Thursday night.
With Qualls leading the way, Arkansas has five wins in its last six games to keep its once-faint NCAA tournament hopes alive after a 2-6 start in conference play. A win at Kentucky (21-6, 11-3) would really burnish those hopes.
"Right now, no one is talking about us in the nation; like we aren't on anyone's bubble or anything right now," freshman Bobby Portis said. "So, I think (if) we go out there and win Thursday, that will be a wakeup call for us around the nation."
The Razorbacks haven't won in Rupp Arena since their national championship season in 1993-94, losing nine straight games there since then.
At home, however, Arkansas earned its second straight win over the Wildcats last month, doing so in dramatic fashion behind Qualls' remarkable dunk. With the game tied in the closing seconds of overtime, the sophomore flew in from the left baseline — corralling Ky Madden's 3-point miss and sending it down with two hands and 0.2 seconds remaining to give the Razorbacks the 87-85 win.
The high-flying Qualls has become a fixture on national highlight shows this season, but none equaled the timeliness of his last-second miracle against Kentucky.
"It was unbelievable," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said.
The dunk was actually one of few highlights for the sophomore during a difficult stretch to open SEC play. After leading the Razorbacks in scoring during nonconference action, Qualls struggled mightily once conference play began.
He shot 11 for 56 (19.6 percent) over his first six SEC games, including a 5-of-14 effort against Kentucky, and his woes became so pronounced that he scored just one point in a season-low 10 minutes in a loss at Tennessee on Jan. 22.
The lowest moment came when Qualls was suspended for a loss at LSU for violating team rules on Feb. 1, though he's bounced back. After a two-point outing in his return against Alabama, Qualls has scored in double figures in five straight games — including a 20-point effort last week in a win over South Carolina.
"Just lack of focus," Qualls said. "That's all it was, a lack of focus ... Some big moments, I stepped up because it was a big moment, but basically I just had to realize every game is a big moment, especially when your back is against the wall."
One person who isn't about to question Qualls' focus on Thursday is Kentucky coach John Calipari.
The Wildcats have won two straight games since a home loss to Florida, and they aren't about to let Qualls surprise them again.
"Well, what he does athletically, he can stand out," Calipari said. "We obviously know how good he is, but knowing how good he is and trying to slow a guy down are two different things."
The Razorbacks won their second SEC road game of the season on Saturday, holding off Mississippi State down the stretch for a 73-69 win. Arkansas had only won once on the road in conference play in each of the last two seasons under Anderson, and now it hopes to carry that momentum over against the Wildcats.
"This is when you want to be playing some of your better basketball and go in that direction," Anderson said. "And I think we are going in that direction."