By Kevin McPherson
Maybe the Arkansas Razorbacks failed to put the “O” back in their offense, but they gobbled up the “0-for” in their winless streak in SEC openers at Texas A&M with their third consecutive come-from-behind victory — a 73-71 escape-job against the Aggies on Saturday in front of 10,049 fans at Reed Arena in College Station, TX.
Sophomore center Daniel Gafford had his third consecutive double-double (11 points and 11 rebounds), sophomore point guard Jalen Harris scored a career-high 15 points to go with a game-high 9 assists, and sophomore wing Mason Jones warmed up for three made 3-pointers to key a 22-17 game-closing run as the Hogs (10-3, 1-0 SEC, NCAA NET No. 73 entering the game) overcame an off shooting night and a 4-of-10 finish at the free throw line to hold off the Aggies and pick up their first league-opening win in College Station in four tries there spanning the last 7 seasons.
“ to the family, that’s what happens when you get into SEC play,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said during his post-game interview with the SEC Network. “Everybody’s familiar with one another, and obviously Texas A&M with their physicality we had to match that. And, we just had guys step up and make plays going down the stretch. I thought Mason Jones … he goes 0-for in the first half, in the second half he made some big, big shots. Our bench came in and played well. Gabe Osabuohien came in and gave us quality minutes. But what can I say, this team continues to get better.”
Texas A&M used a 6-0 run for a 54-51 lead with 7:31 to play, but Jones — who was 0-for-7 from the field at the time — nailed his first 3-point basket with 5:16 to play to give Arkansas a 56-55 lead while igniting a 16-6 run that would hand the Hogs their biggest advantage, 69-61, with 1:35 to play. Jones made a total of three 3s in that run, and freshman guard Isaiah Joe chipped in his third triple — from deep NBA range — as Arkansas appeared to be running away from the Aggies. But Texas A&M took advantage of Arkansas’s 3-of-8 free throw shooting down the stretch, trimming the Hogs’ lead down to 72-71 on a putback by senior forward Christian Mekowulu with 2.2 seconds remaining. Joe made the first of two free throws, and after missing the second Aggies’ sophomore guard T.J. Starks launched a three-quarters-court desperation heave that fell well short at the buzzer.
The ending was reminiscent of Arkansas’s 73-72 win over now-21st-ranked Indiana at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville back in November, when Jones made his first free throw but intentionally missed the second with 2.4 second left, giving the Hoosiers — who were out of timeouts — only a desperation heave from three-quarters court as time expired.
“I was hoping Isaiah, I said ‘Miss that shot for us’ so they (Texas A&M) could heave one,” said Anderson, who’s now 4-4 in SEC openers at Arkansas, including 2-3 on the road. “Thank goodness nobody had timeouts left.”
Arkansas has now won 2 of its last 3 trips to College Station (the Hogs overcame a double-digit deficit in ’16-17 to defeat the host Aggies, 62-60), and Arkansas has won 4 of the last 5 games between the two teams. Although the Razorbacks, who came in averaging 81.8 points per game, failed to crack the 80-point scoring mark for the sixth consecutive game, their 73 points on Saturday were more than the 69, 53, and 51 they scored while losing by an average margin of 19.0 points in their previous three SEC openers in College Station.
The win over Texas A&M (6-6, 0-1, NCAA NET No. 110) also moves the Razorbacks to 2-0 in true road games on the season — that’s the best road start in Anderson’s eight campaigns at Arkansas — and they’re 3-1 in games played outside Bud Walton Arena.
Arkansas has now won 5 of 8 games in ’18-19 that were one or two-possession margins in the final two minutes, and the win over the Aggies was the third game in a row that the Hogs had to come from behind for a win (includes a 73-70 home win over Texas State on Dec. 22 after trailing by 13 points, and 76-65 home win over Austin Peay on Dec. 28 after trailing by four points midway through the second half). Those games immediately followed a bumpy stretch in mid-December when the Hogs began struggling on offense while going 1-2.
“I think it tells you the growth of this team,” Anderson said of his team’s and recent resilience late in close games. “You think about the losses that we have, they’ve all been like one possession. One stop, or a free throw here, a free throw there. We’re right there, and so now to come on the road in an SEC game … it’s difficult to win on the road, but for a young basketball team with nine newcomers to come to A&M and sort of steal one, my hat’s off to our guys. I thought they didn’t lose their poise, they stayed within the gameplan. They played together, they played off each other.
“I think we see this team continue to grow, and in our league you gotta grow, and you better get better because there’s going to be games like this each and every night.”
Complicating Arkansas’s offensive struggles in recent games was a horrendous stretch on the glass in their previous three contests — a combined minus-28 in rebounds and a combined minus-38 in second-chance points. But the Hogs turned the tables against a strong rebounding Aggies’ club, winning the glass 47-42 — including a 17-11 advantage in offensive rebounds that led to a slight win in second-chance points of 18-16. Arkansas had won most of its points-in-the-paint battles on the season, but lost 38-26 inside as Starks knifed through the Hogs’ defenders to score most of his game-high 23 points.
Both teams took care of the basketball. Arkansas suffered only 8 turnovers while dishing out 16 assists for its 26 made field goals. Texas A&M also had only 8 turnovers, but Arkansas won the points-off-turnovers, 10-6. The Hogs shot 37.1% field goals for the game, but their 10-of-33 effort from 3 for 30.3% was decisively better than the Aggies’ 5-of-24 from distance for 20.8%. Arkansas, which came in shooting 65.8% from the free throw line but had shot 72% in its last four games, finished a disappointing 11-of-22 for 50% against the Aggies, who were 16-of-25 for 64.0%.
“We kind of mixed and matched our defense,” Anderson said. “But Starks, I tell you what, he’s a tough character man, attacking that basket. But I thought it came down to in the paint, and I thought we did a good job of matching their intensity and physicality on the rebounding, and getting to the line. Man, I know we shoot better (at the free throw line) than we shot.”
Harris, who hit his second 3-point basket in as many games after making only two in the Hogs first 11 games of the season, had another ZERO-turnover game to go with his career-high 15 points and 9 assists (3 of which set up dunks in the second half).
“I thought he took control out there, and I thought that was going to be the big key to this game,” Anderson said of Harris, who was playing in his first career SEC game. “Are we going to have somebody settle us down when the adversity comes, when Texas A&M makes a great run on us, and he was that guy. He was the catalyst out here. But it was a total team effort.”
Gafford’s double-double was not only his third in a row, it was his fourth in the last five games and his seventh on the season after having only three as a freshman in ’17-18. Gafford did most of his damage before picking up his fourth foul and going to the bench at the 6:43 mark as the Aggies held a slim 55-53 lead, but with Jones throwing daggers from 3 and Osabuohien and junior forward Adrio Bailey (5 points, 5 rebounds) picking up the slack inside Anderson had the luxury of sitting Gafford until the end of the game.
Joe, who came in as the SEC’s leading 3-point shooter, scored 11 points on 3-of-8 field goals (including 3-of-7 from 3) and 2-of-4 free throws to go with 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal. Joe joins Gafford as the only Hogs to score in double-figures in each of Arkansas’s 13 games. Jones finished with 9 points (3-of-11 field goals all from 3), 5 rebounds, and 3 assists.
Arkansas also got a huge lift off its bench as freshman combo guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro scored a career-high 13 points in the first half to help Arkansas claim its first halftime lead in College Station (32-31) since the Aggies joined the SEC. Sills finished with a career-high 14 points as he would make 1-of-2 free throws in the closing seconds to help Arkansas maintain a narrow lead. Osabuohien was also a spark as he had 6 points (3-of-6 field goals that included a couple of putbacks), a career-high 7 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 assist, and 2 drawn charges in 18 minutes.
Arkansas jumped out to an 8-2 lead as Joe started the game shooting 2-of-3 from 3, but Texas A&M fought back by getting into the paint and scoring at close range as the Aggies eventually put together a 9-0 run for a 22-20 lead with 7:34 remaining in the first half. Gafford scored his first two baskets of the game for a 24-22 Arkansas lead with 6:06 remaining, but a 5-0 mini run by Texas A&M was good for a 27-24 Aggies lead at the 3:31.
That’s when Sills strung together a personal 5-0 run — his third made triple and a putback after an Arkansas offensive rebound — that gave Arkansas a 29-27 lead with 2:48 left before halftime. After a made free throw by Harris with 0:55 left, Texas A&M’s Josh Nebo went 2-of-2 at the line to give the Aggies a 31-30 lead, but Harris responded in Arkansas’s final possession of the half with a driving lay-in that put the Hogs up at the break, 32-31.
The Hogs, who are now 102-55 all-time against the Aggies after playing twice annually for decades going back to the old Southwest Conference, return to Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville where they will host Florida on Wednesday and LSU next Saturday before going back on the road the following week against No. 3 Tennessee and Ole Miss.