Arkansas’s free throw woes blow chance at upsetting Texas in 73-71 OT loss

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By Kevin McPherson

With all the pre-game talk of Texas’s experience and depth, and Arkansas’s new-car smell with 8 newcomers out of 11 available scholarship players, it was a game won and lost at the free throw line as the Longhorns escaped with a 73-71 overtime victory in the Armed Forces Classic at Fort Bliss military base in El Paso, TX. 

Texas shot 21-of-30 from the free throw line (70.0%) for the game, including 4-of-6 in overtime, while Arkansas was 13-of-24 at the foul line (54.2%), including 4-of-8 combined in the final seconds of regulation and overtime in a back-and-forth, one-possession game that ultimately titled in the Longhorns’ favor. After Arkansas sophomore center Daniel Gafford made 1-of-2 free throws with 9.4 seconds left in regulation for a 3-point Razorbacks’ lead, Texas senior guard Kerwin Roach hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 63 at 0:01 that sent the game to the extra period. 

In overtime, the teams traded the lead until ‘Horns freshman guard Courtney Ramey banked in a runner with 0:47 left that gave Texas the advantage for good at 72-71, and after a made free throw by the ‘Horns guard Elijah Mitrou-Long with 0:27 left, Arkansas missed twice in their final possession — sophomore guard Jalen Harris had a good look in the paint but missed, and after a Gafford offensive rebound and kick-out, sophomore wing Mason Jones missed a 3-point heave at the buzzer.

“Gut-wrenching,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said during his post-game radio interview. “Boy, I tell you what, that’s the learning curve. The learning curve today was: You gotta make your free throws. That’s what gives you a chance. Give credit to Texas, I thought Roach hit a big shot for them … they got the ball back, and he made a big shot. But, you’ve got to make free throws going down the stretch.”

It was Anderson’s first season-opening loss in 8 years as the Razorbacks head coach. The Hogs and ‘Horns played in front of mostly military servicemen inside tiny Soto Gym on the Fort Bliss base, as well as a national TV audience on ESPN.

“I tell you what, I love our guys’ fight. And I think the nation got a chance to see that Razorback fighting spirit within this team here. I was proud of our guys.”

Arkansas’s starters accounted for 67 of the team’s 71 points, and 178 of the 200 minutes played in the game. The Hogs were led by Gafford’s double-double in scoring and rebounds — 20 points (8-of-15 field goals and 4-of-9 free throws), 12 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1 steal in 33 minutes. Freshman shooting guard Isaiah Joe of Fort Smith — who was 19-of-31 shooting from 3 in three preseason dress rehearsals — continued to have a hot hand with a 5-of-8 effort from 3 (6-of-10 overall) for 17 points in 34 minutes. Harris had 11 points (3-of-12 field goals and 5-of-6 free throws), 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and only 2 turnovers while playing a team-high 39 minutes. Jones had 11 points (3-of-10 field goals, including 2-of-6 from 3, and 3-of-4 free throws), 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 block in 37 minutes. Junior forward Adrio Bailey had 8 points (4-of-5 field goals and 0-of-2 free throws), 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 block in 35 minutes.

Arkansas chipped away at a 36-30 halftime deficit, using an 8-4 run with Gafford and Bailey each scoring 4 points to pull within 40-38 just 4 minutes into the second half. Texas, which at one point was only 2-of-19 shooting in the second half, stayed in the game at the free throw line and led 47-41 when Joe went on a one-man 8-0 run — two triples and a pull-up in the paint after a nice pass from Gafford — that put the Hogs ahead for the first time since early in the first half, 49-47, with 8:50 left in regulation. From there, the teams would battle back-and-forth in a one-possession game leading up to Roach’s clutch make from 3 that sent the game to overtime.

Arkansas shot only 41.0% from the field (25-of-61) for the game, but the Hogs held Texas to just 31.4% (21-of-67) by mixing in a 2-3 matchup zone with their man-to-man defense. Arkansas was 8-of-22 from 3 (36.4%), but only 4-of-13 in the second half. Texas started 7-of-19 from 3, but finished 10-of-31 (32.3%). Texas won the rebounding (48-46) and turnover (18-14) battles.

“We took the fight to them,” Anderson said. “I thought Daniel, again he’s got to be a centerpiece for us, a lot of things went through him. I was really proud of J5 (Harris), this was his first game in a Razorback uniform. Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe. I thought Adrio was really big for us tonight, made a lot big plays defensively.

“I thought defensively, we played well enough in the second half to really pull this one off, but as I said you’ve got to make free throws.” 

Texas was led by Roach, who had his own double-double (18 points and 11 rebounds), as did senior forward Dylan Osetkowski (11 points and 13 rebounds). Center Jerico Sims had 14 points and 5 rebounds for the Longhorns. 

Smart begins his fourth season in Austin 2-0 after guiding a program that was 50-50 in the first three campaigns under his watch. Texas defeated Eastern Illinois, 71-59, at home on Tuesday, and tonight’s win over Arkansas moves Smart to 1-1 at Texas against Anderson and the Hogs, who took a 77-74 win over the ‘Horns in the Lone Star Shootout at the Toyota Center in Houston in December 2016. 

After falling behind 2-0, Arkansas went on an 8-0 run fueled by back-to-back 3s from Jones and Joe and a dunk by Gafford after a nice feed from Harris. The Hogs were up 15-14 when Texas went on a 13-0 run in a 3-minute span for a 27-15 lead midway through the first half. The Hogs chipped away at the lead, using a 2-3 matchup zone to minimize Texas’s opportunities from 3 and reduce drives to the basket that aided a 15-7 run to close the half to pull within 6, 36-30, at the break. 

Texas was 7-of-19 on 3-pointers in the first half (36.8%), compared to 4-of-9 (44.4%) for Arkansas. The ‘Horns committed only 5 first-half turnovers, compared to 9 for the Hogs. Arkasnas had a small rebounding advantage at the break, 21-19. Gafford led the Hogs with 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 block in the first half. Joe had 6 points (2-of-3 from 3), while Jones and Harris scored 5 points each.

Arkansas traveled to Fort Bliss on Wednesday as the Armed Forces Classic was a multi-day event that had both teams taking part in clinics and other activities while interacting with military personnel as a lead-up to tonight’s game.

Up next for the Hogs is a quick turnaround and home game Monday against UC-Davis, marking the first of four consecutive games over the next two weeks at Bud Walton Arena that are being billed as the Hardwood Classic (includes Indiana on Sunday, Nov. 18; Montana State on Wednesday, Nov. 21; and Texas-Arlington on Friday, Nov. 23). Arkansas plays a total of 10 in-state games (nine at home in Fayetteville, one in North Little Rock) in the months of November and December, including Western Kentucky at BWA on Dec. 8 and Georgia Tech at BWA on Dec. 19. The Razorbacks play only once more outside the state of Arkansas — at Colorado State on Dec. 5 — before opening up SEC play at Texas A&M on Jan. 5, 2019.

Rewinding the 5 Things on My Pre-Game Radar for Arkansas-Texas: 

1) Slow starts … we saw mostly ugly first halves when Arkansas stumbled into the lockerroom with a hemorrhage of turnovers and missed free throws while holding small leads against NCAA Division II oponents Tusculum (30-24) and Southwest Baptist (40-30) … although the Hogs cleaned things up for huge second halves in those games to win by an average margin of 43.0 points, a slow start against Texas might result in an early runaway for the ‘Horns … looking for Gafford to be locked in and aggressive early, and move the ball quickly and smartly when the double-team comes, for Bailey to not force offense early, for Harris to promote the ball movement FIRST by getting off the ball and not forcing too much off the bounce, and for Joe and Jones to not pass on open looks — ALL of these were scenarios that would have served Arkansas better coming out of the gates in preseason games … does Arkansas come out flat again, or ready for battle against Texas?

Result: Arkansas jumped out to an 8-2 lead, and though the Hogs got behind by 12, 27-15, including a 13-0 Texas run, they fought back within 6 at halftime and turned the game into a back-and-forth, one-possesion game in the final 9 minutes of regulation and overtime. Gafford was aggressive from the outset, Bailey was dependable (especially to start the second half), Harris ran the show, and both Joe and Jones started strong.

2) Playing through Daniel Gafford … this was actually one of my five pre-game keys last week, and really it applies to every game Arkansas will play in ’18-19 … for Arkansas to play and stay with a deep, talented Texas team, the halfcourt offense will function best IF it runs through Gafford, and once he has the ball it’s imperative that he moves decisively or passes out to beat double teams, and that he makes free throws to make teams pay for leaning, pounding, and hacking him — which will be part of the gameplan for teams that have frontline depth and fouls to spend in light of Gafford’s struggles at the foul line (only 33.3% in the preseason). When Gafford gets touches, it forces defenses to pick their poison in either doubling him and leaving open shooters or putting a big on an island trying to defend him. Advantage Gafford and Hogs the more Arkansas plays through him, so we’ll see if that is a priority against Texas.

Result: Mixed bag here. I thought Harris and company did a good job of going inside to the big man, and Gafford did a lot of good and impacted both ends with 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 33 minutes But I thought he was too slow passing out of the double-team most of the night, and then at the foul line he was only 4 of 9 (44.4%). Still, I’ll take Gafford’s effort, production, and impact any night.

3) Defense, and creating offense through turnovers and rebounding … the pieces are in place for Anderson’s most disruptive defensive team, eventually, and thus generating easy, transition offense should be a direct benefit … we’ll be watching to see how strong the on-ball defense is, how many deflections and steals the Hogs generate, and if Arkansas can push for transition offense after securing steals, blocks, and defensive rebounds … at minumim, will the on-ball perimeter D be ready to stop penetration, and if not does it cause Gafford to pick up cheap fouls defending penetration and plays at the rim? If Arkansas can force turnovers — the way Gafford runs the floor combined with Harris’s open-court speed and play-making ability, plus plugging in gritty defenders like Osabuohien, Chaney, and Sills — the combinations are there for some vintage 40 Minutes of Hell defense-to-transition-offense scenarios … but how soon? Conversely, Arkansas does not have the size, athleticism, or depth to match up against Texas at the small forward / wing spots, so will this cause a major defensive lapse for the Hogs that the ‘Horns can expose?

Result: Aside from a tough stretch when Texas used a 24-7 run for a 29-20 lead in the first half, I thought the Hogs did a good job of mixing in their 2-3 matchup zone with their man-to-man defense the rest of the way, eliminating open looks from three and cutting off driving lanes. I thought Gafford was disruptive once players penetrated the paint, and I thought Harris, Jones, Joe, and Desi Sills (in his limited minutes) did a good job on the perimeter after a rough stretch in the middle of the first half. Arkansas only forced 14 turnovers, but the pace of the game was a grind and the object became limiting Texas in the halfcourt, which is what we saw Arkansas do. Not much defense-to-transition-offense for either team, but in games where Arkansas can dictate tempo, this group looks to have what it takes to generate easy scores from their defense.

4) Free throw shooting … a key to winning away from home is getting to the foul line and cashing in, yet Arkansas struggled shooting freebies in the preseason … actually, the guard corps has been solid through three dress rehearsals, combining for 40-of-51 at the line for 78.4% … but frontcourt players are only 35-of-66 for 53.0%, including Gafford’s 6-of-18 effort for 33.3% … overall as a team, that’s 64.1% free-throw shooting in the preseason … we’ll be looking to see how effective Arkansas is attacking Texas defenders to draw fouls, how often Arkansas gets to the free throw line, and whether or not the Hogs can improve their free-throw shooting to at least 70%.

Result: Storyline of the game. Once again, the backcourt shot well (8-of-11 for 72.7%), but the frontline was a combined 5-of-13 for 38.5%. Ball game!

5) Three individual matchups I’ll be watching … Jerico Sims (6-9, athletic rim-protector) will be a good test inside for Gafford … Dylan Ostekowski (6-9 with inside-out shooting skill and high floor IQ) could be a matchup problem for the Hogs’ rotating forwards (Bailey, Osabuohien, and Chaney) similar to what North Carolina’s Luke Maye presented last year in the Tar Heels’ blowout win over Arkansas in the PK80 event in Portland … Matt Coleman III and Jalen Harris will each be running the show for their team, can Harris match productivity and effectiveness as a floor-leader?

Result: Sims did enough (14 points and 5 rebounds) to help Texas win, but Gafford (20-12-2) was the superior player and had a bigger impact at both ends … Ostekowski did not shoot well enough to earn the Luke Maye comparison, but his 11 points, 13 rebounds, and perimeter passing that set up Texas shooters in the first half was key in the ‘Horns win … Harris outplayed and out-produced Coleman, and he was a big reason Arkansas had a chance in the end. Harris’ vision and feel as a penetrator and facilitator was impressive in his first opportunity as a Razorback.

Over the years, Arkansas-v-Texas in basketball mattered: 

Including tonight’s Armed Forces Classic matchup, Arkansas owns a healthy 87-68 advantage in the series. In its first-ever season of basketball (1923-24), Arkansas played Texas. Even though the two programs have only played each other five times since the 1990-91 season (when Arkansas broke from the SWC for the SEC), this will be the 155th all-time meeting in the series. Texas A&M (157 meetings) is the only team Arkansas has played more. Here’s a deeper dive into Hogs-v-‘Horns over the years …

— Late ’70s battles between Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton’s legendary Triplets — Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer, and Marvin Delph — and Texas coach Abe Lemons’ trio of Johnny Moore, Ron Baxter, and Jim Krivacs, including the Moncrief / Sports-Illustrated-cover game in Fayetteville in February 1978 in a season when the Hogs would rise to No. 1 in the nation for the first time in school history en route to reaching the Final Four, the same season that Texas would win the then-prestigious NIT championship (it mattered back then) as Lemons would be recognized as national coach of the year. 

— Early ’80s and mid-80s battles with U.S. Reid, Scott Hastings, Darrell Walker, Alvin Robertson, and Joe Kleine matching up against the likes of LaSalle Thompson, Mike Wacker, and John Brownlee as both programs were battling at or near the top of the SWC.

— Late ’80s / early ’90s when Hogs’ Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson’s trio of Lee Mayberry, Todd Day, and Oliver Miller slugged it out with Texas coach Tom Penders’ trio of Lance Blanks, Travis Mays, and Joey Wright in epic, score-fest battles for SWC supremacy … arguably the most intense stretch of games in the long history of matchups between Arkansas and Texas were played during the 1989-90 season when the Hogs swept the ‘Horns in 3 games — all single-digit margin wins that had national relevance: The first was a 109-100 Arkansas win in Fayetteville in January 1990; followed by a dramatic, controversial 103-96 Arkansas overtime win in Austin in February 1990 (nationally televised by ABC) that became known as the “Strollin’ with Nolan” game after Richardson walked off the court in the final seconds of regulation to protest an intentional foul call on sophomore guard Lee Mayberry with Arkansas trailing, only to return for overtime after Mayberry dribbled up the floor and rose up to bury a 30-foot, game-tying triple that beat the buzzer; and finally, a hard-fought, 88-85 Arkansas victory in the Elite Eight in Dallas in March 1990 (nationally televised by CBS) that clinched Richardson’s first of three career Final Four berths while at Arkansas. 

— Some combination of — SWC / Big 12 Player of the Year, All American, National College Player of the Year, Olympic gold medalist, 1st round NBA draft pick, NBA stat category leader (i.e. scoring, rebounds, assists, steals, and/or blocks), NBA Rookie of the Year, NBA All Defensive 1st team, NBA Defensive Player of the Year, NBA All Star, NBA All Pro, NBA MVP, NBA champion, NBA Finals MVP, SI magazine cover, retired college number/jersey, and retired NBA number/jersey — can be found on the resumes of at least 21 players who have competed in this series during the modern era of college basketball (mid-70s to present): Sidney Moncrief (Arkansas), Ron Brewer (Arkansas), Jim Krivacs (Texas), Ron Baxter (Texas), Johnny Moore (Texas), LaSalle Thompson (Texas), Scott Hastings (Arkansas), Darrell Walker (Arkansas), Alvin Robertson (Arkansas), Joe Kleine (Arkansas), John Brownlee (Texas), Todd Day (Arkansas), Lee Mayberry (Arkansas), Oliver Miller (Arkansas), Lance Blanks (Texas), Travis Mays (Texas), Patrick Beverley (Arkansas), Kevin Durant (Texas), D.J. Augustin (Texas), Avery Bradley (Texas), and Jarrett Allen (Texas). 

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