By Kevin McPherson
Hitting what is roughly the midway point of the season, the Arkansas Razorbacks are defining their 2018-19 campaign with close losses at home. For the second consecutive SEC game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, the Hogs made a furious comeback to erase a late-second-half double-digit deficit only to lose by six in the end — this time against LSU, 94-88, in overtime on Saturday.
Despite sophomore center Daniel Gafford putting up a career-high 32 points, Arkansas (10-5, 1-2 SEC) has now lost for the fourth time on its home court — includes back-to-back non-conference losses in December, and now back-to-back SEC losses in early January counting Wednesday’s 57-51 loss against Florida when the Hogs erased a late 15-point deficit with a chance to tie or take the lead in the final half-minute of the contest. The Hogs are now 0-2 in overtime games (includes a 73-71 OT loss to Texas in the season-opener in El Paso), they’ve lost their five games by a combined total of 19 points (that’s a 3.8-point margin per loss), and they’re now 5-5 in one- or two-possession games inside of two minutes to play.
Arkansas trailed by as many as 13 points in the second half against LSU, and the Hogs were down 73-61 with 9:19 to play when Gafford scored 5 points to help fuel a 12-0 run to tie the game at 73 with 5 minutes remaining. From there, Gafford and sophomore wing Mason Jones — who finished with 22 points — each scored two baskets in a back-and-forth with LSU, including Gafford’s dunk with 30 seconds remaining that tied the game at 81. LSU sophomore point guard Tremont Waters and freshman forward Naz Reid each missed shots in the final 0:03 as the game moved to the extra period.
In overtime, Gafford immediately scored on a lay-in to give Arkansas its first lead of the game, 83-81, but LSU responded with back-to-back 3s by freshman guard Ja’vonte Smart and Reid for an 87-83 Tigers’ lead. Gafford’s dunk at 2:52 in overtime brought the Hogs within 87-85, and freshman guard Isaiah Joe made 1-of-2 free throws with 1:36 left in the extra period to close the gap back to one possession, 89-86, but LSU rattled off five unanswered points for a 94-86 lead before Joe’s mid-range bucket at 0:05 provided the final margin.
Once again, Arkansas can point to the free throw line as a problem in a close loss. The Hogs shot six more freebies than the Tigers, but made one less (Arkansas was 17-of-28 for 60.7%, and LSU was 18-of-22 for 81.8%). The Hogs are a combined 61-of-103 (59.2%) from the free throw line in their five losses.
“It was obviously a disappointed locker room in there,” Anderson said. “Our guys, they spilled their guts and heart on that floor … trying to find a way to win. Still the little things we’ve got to do to finish off a game against a very talented LSU team. Give them credit.
“I thought the second half was totally different than it was the first half, and I thought it was much to our advantage. But let’s give them (LSU) credit, they made plays when they had to, made free throws when they had to. But it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. I was disappointed in the outcome of the game, but I was not discouraged because of the effort. I thought we got better against a much better team. That’s probably one of our better halves, that second half. Got it into overtime … but we talk about the game is gonna come down to the little things, and it came down to the little things again. And I think the little things are execution, offensively and defensively. But again, let’s give LSU a lot of credit. They made some big plays.”
The Razorbacks (34-of-66 field goals for 51.5%) and Tigers (33-of-64 for 51.6%) were practically even overall shooting the ball, except LSU’s 10-of-25 effort from 3 (40%) was significantly better than Arkansas’s 3-of-16 beyond the arc (18.8%). The Tigers outrebounded the Hogs, 36-31, but the advantage in offensive rebounds was only 12-11 as Arkansas actually won second-chance-points, 16-15. Arkansas won the turnover battle, 19-16, but LSU won points-off-turnovers, 23-17. Both teams had 14 bench points. Arkansas won points in the paint, 54-44, but it was not enough considering LSU’s 21-point edge in made 3-pointers.
For the first time in its last eight games, Arkansas cracked the 80-point scoring mark.
Gafford, who came in leading the SEC in field goal percentage, made 14-of-19 field goals (73.4%) and 4-of-9 free throws (44.4%) for his 32 points to go with 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in 37 minutes.
“They had no answer for him,” Anderson said of LSU’s difficulty defending Gafford, who only got up 4 shot attempts in the loss against Florida. “Our guys, I thought they did a much better job of really finding him on time, and he did a good job of finishing. I thought he positioned himself closer to the basket. But yeah, we wanted to make sure that (the offense) was inside-out today.”
Gafford was asked about the back-to-back home losses after erasing double-digit deficits with chances to win against both Florida and LSU.
“I mean, it’s tough,” Gafford said. “To go out and play your tail off for 40 minutes, and then to come out and have to play an extra 5 minutes for overtime, and I mean to have a loss like that … it’s one that’s gonna hurt us real bad. Like coach said, it’s going to have to hurt till midnight. But you know, games go either way, so hopefully next game we come out on top.”
Jones, coming off a career-best 30-point effort against Florida, was 6-of-10 shooting (including 2-of-5 from 3) and 8-of-9 free throws for his 22 points to go with 6 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 assist in a team-high 38 minutes.
Joe, who had scored in double-figures in each of Arkansas’s first 13 games, failed to do so for the second consecutive game. He finished with a season-low 5 points and failed to make a 3-point shot for the first time this season. Including Joe’s 34-point effort against Florida International on Dec. 1, the Hogs have had three players to score at least 30 points in a game in ’18-19.
Freshman forward Reggie Chaney led Arkansas’s second unit with 12 points (6-of-8 field goals and 0-of-1 free throws), 5 rebounds, 4 steals, 2 blocks, and 1 steal in 27 minutes before fouling out in overtime.
“One thing I was telling Reggie … when he touched the ball, they sagged off of him, and I mean they left the lane wide open for him,” Gafford said. “So, I just told him whenever he touched the ball just go straight towards the basket, either get fouled and get the and-1, or just score the basket. What he did tonight, he did some really big things for us. He rebounded for us, he blocked shots for us. He even came out and guarded Tremont (Waters) for us. He kept him contained for a couple of possessions.”
LSU (12-3, 2-0 SEC), which swept Arkansas in two games in ’17-’18 in Will Wade’s first season as Tigers head coach, was led by Waters’ double-double: 17 points, 11 assists, 3 steals, 2 rebounds, and 7 turnovers in 42 minutes. Reid scored a team-high 27 points (10-of-12 field goals including 4-of-4 from 3 and 3-of-4 free throws) to go with 7 rebounds and 2 assists in 26 minutes. Junior guard Skylar Mays had 15 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 steals in 41 minutes, while junior wing Marlon Taylor had 21 points (7-of-8 field goals including 1-of-2 from 3 and 6-of-6 free throws) to go with 7 rebounds in 37 minutes.
Arkansas trailed, 40-32, at halftime as LSU shot 60% from the field, including 50% from 3, and 89% at the free throw line. Gafford had 16 points, and Jones and Chaney had 10 each, at the break.
The Hogs, who started 1-3 in SEC play in each of the last 2 seasons before winning their fifth league game each time on their way to final SEC winning records, are in danger of a 1-4 start in SEC play with road games next week against No. 3 Tennessee (14-1, 3-0 SEC) and upstart Ole Miss (13-2, 3-0 SEC).