The Razorbacks senior is doing his best to make the most of his final opportunities — hoping to lead Arkansas back to the NCAA tournament in the process.
Clarke once again showed how far he’s come in two seasons on Saturday, scoring a career-high 23 points as the Razorbacks held off Georgia for an 87-75 win.
The win was the second in two days for Arkansas (20-9, 9-7 Southeastern Conference) over one of the SEC’s top teams, following a win at Kentucky on Thursday night.
It was also the seventh in eight games for the surging Razorbacks, who have bounced back from a 2-6 start to conference play and appear to be closing in on their first postseason berth since 2008.
“They’re taking ownership of this team, and as a coach, when you’ve got leadership taking place and the ownership, all you’ve got to do is just stay out of the way,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “I hope I don’t screw it up.”
Michael Qualls added 20 points for Arkansas, giving the school 20 wins for the first time since the 2007-08 season — the last time it went to the NCAA tournament.
Former Whitefield Academy star Kenny Gaines led the Bulldogs (16-12, 10-6) with 25 points, while Marcus Thornton had 13 and Brandon Morris 11.
Georgia had won six of seven games entering Saturday, but it went just 8-of-28 (28.6 percent) in the second half as the Razorbacks rallied back from a seven-point first-half deficit for the convincing win.
“I thought their defense just finally got to us,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “Just sometimes the result of their press is not in a direct turnover or a steal; sometimes it just changes the rhythm or wears you down.”
Georgia, which defeated Arkansas in overtime on Jan. 18, led by as many as seven points in the first half — thanks to a remarkable shooting effort that saw the Bulldogs hit 13 of their first 16 shots.
Gaines led the way, connecting on his first five shots — including four 3-pointers — and finishing with 14 points in the first half.
After Nemanja Djurisic’s inside basket put Georgia up 35-28, however, the Razorbacks — fresh off their first win at Kentucky in 20 years less than 48 hours earlier — surged ahead.
They went on a 16-2 run to close out the first half and never trailed again.
“I don’t feel like anyone was satisfied with the Kentucky win,” Qualls said.
Clarke started the run with a 3-pointer, and he ended it in athletic fashion — skying to grab an alley-oop pass from Qualls and laying it home over Gaines for a three-point play. His free throw after the basket put the Razorbacks, who shot 14-of-24 (58.3 percent) in the first half, up 44-37 at halftime.
Clarke had 15 points in the first half, one off his previous season high of 16 points. He topped that mark with a free throw in the second half to put Arkansas up 52-42, and he hit four free throws in the final minute to earn his career-best effort.
Arkansas’ recent hot play has coincided with an increased role from Clarke, who transferred to the Razorbacks from Lawson State (Ala.) Community College before last season.
Clarke averaged 7.6 points per game last season, and he was near that same mark for much of this season as Arkansas struggled to open SEC play.
Lately, however, as his career nears an end, Clarke’s turned into nothing short of a primary offensive weapon for the Razorbacks.
Saturday’s performance was the sixth time in seven games that he’s scored in double figures, and he topped his previous career best of 20 points — which came against Sam Houston State in 2012.
“I don’t know when that last time I’ll be able to bounce a ball, or what my career holds for me after this,” Clarke said. “So, I’m just putting everything I can right now all on the line.”
The Razorbacks pushed their lead to 60-45 following an inside basket from Alandise Harris midway through the second half.
Gaines’ fifth 3-pointer of the game brought the Bulldogs back to within seven points at 60-53, and they later closed to within 65-60 after free throws by Gaines.
Arkansas, however, went back up 70-60 after a jumper by Mardracus Wade and a 3-pointer by Ky Madden — putting the game out of reach for Georgia.
“Arkansas certainly sustained it longer than we did,” Fox said. “So, we just played uphill in the second half once we got behind. You know, we just played uphill, which is so hard to do on the road.”