By Kevin McPherson
The Arkansas Razorbacks traded punches with co-SEC-leader and No. 4 Kentucky from the opening bell — landing more than they ate in building a 15-point lead early in the second half — but the Wildcats got a heroic effort from freshman guard Tyler Herro (career-high 29 points) while benefitting from ALL of the questionable calls/no-calls in the end to survive, 70-66, on Tuesday at Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY.
Outscored by eight points from the field, Kentucky (24-4, 13-2 SEC) enjoyed a 32-to-15 advantage in free throw attempts that included 22 makes compared to 10 for Arkansas, and the Wildcats survived not one, not two, but three potential game-shifting out-of-bounds plays with a 2-point lead and 3.2 seconds to play. Kentucky freshman guard Ashton Hagans potentially committed a violation inbounding the ball at 3.2 seconds (no call); then Arkansas sophomore Mason Jones appeared to knock the ball off the elbow/forearm of Kentucky freshman wing Keldon Johnson on the inbounds pass (after replay review the officials upheld the call on the floor to award the ‘Cats the ball); then with 2.0 seconds remaining and Kentucky trying once again to inbound the ball, Herro extended his right arm and clearly cleared out Arkansas freshman guard Isaiah Joe around the neck/head area while trying to create space to receive the inbounds pass — the last of the missed calls at minimum should have been an offensive foul and Arkansas basketball, and it could have resulted in a flagrant-1 and two Arkansas free throws and possession had it been called when it happened or reviewed after the fact.
But instead, Kentucky was able to extend its 2-point lead with 2 free throws with 1.3 seconds remaining to ice the win.
Arkansas (14-14, 5-10 SEC) lost its sixth consecutive game — the worst such streak since the end of the 2009-10 season — and for the first time since 2011-12 in Mike Anderson’s first season as head coach the Razorbacks are assured of finishing with a losing regular-season league record. Arkansas — now 8-10 in games that were one- or two-possession margins in the final two minutes — has lost its last seven games against Kentucky spanning five seasons. The Hogs dropped to 3-7 in true road games, including 2-6 in SEC road games, this season.
“First of all, our guys came out with the mindset of really playing defense and fighting,” Anderson said. “I thought we played with our hearts … that was the true Razorbacks tonight. I was really proud of the effort of our guys. I’m never into consolation, I’m not into that. I thought our guys played hard and well enough to win this particular game. We had some things that didn’t go our way going down the stretch, and I know that’s life on the road. But 32 (Kentucky) free throws, man. And I’m not crying, but at the same time I thought our guys came out and established our identity on defense.”
Arkansas used runs of 15-5 early and 17-10 to end the first half for a 39-28 lead at the break as Joe scored 16 points. Making his second career start in consecutive games, freshman guard Desi Sills knocked down two 3-pointers as Arkansas extended to a 45-30 lead at the 18:22 mark of the second half. Joe’s fifth 3-pointer at 14:41 elevated the Razorbacks to a 48-36 lead, but those would be his last points of the game.
From there, Herro would score 11 points (including three 3-pointers) to fuel a 18-3 Wildcats’ run for a 54-51 Kentucky lead with 7:07 remaining. The Wildcats were ahead 60-55 with 4:10 to play when Arkansas shot its first free throws of the second half — a 2-of-2 effort from Sills that closed the gap to one possession, 60-57.
Kentucky would push its lead to 63-57 with 2:41 to play, but Arkansas sophomore center Daniel Gafford scored twice inside and Jones nailed a 3 during a 8-3 Hogs mini run that pulled them within 66-65 with 0:14 remaining. Herro — a 92.6% free throw shooter — made two from the line with 5.4 seconds remaining to extend Kentucky to a three-point lead, 68-65. After a timeout, the Wildcats chose to foul Arkansas guard Jalen Harris in the backcourt with 3.2 seconds to play instead of chancing a potential game-tying 3-point shot attempt by the Hogs, and after making the first free throw to close the margin to two points Harris failed to hit the rim on his second free throw attempt — which was an intentional miss to give Arkansas an opportunity for an offensive rebound and putback. As a result and by rule, Kentucky was awarded the ball on the end-line underneath Arkansas’s basket.
What ensued in the final 3.2 seconds of inept Kentucky inbounds endeavors must have felt like a collective below-the-belt shot to the Razorbacks players, coaches, and fans as Kentucky escaped with the win.
Joe led the Hogs with 19 points (6-of-10 field goals including 5-of-7 from 3), 3 assists, 1 rebounds, adn 1 steal in 34 minutes. Joe leads the SEC in 3-pointers made (98), and he’s moved within 4 of tying Scotty Thurman’s all-time school record of 102 made 3-pointers in a season.
Sillis registered a career-high 15 points (4-of-8 field goals including 3-of-5 from 3, and 4-of-4 free throws) and had 1 steal in 29 minutes. Gafford had 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 23 minutes while playing through foul trouble. Jones finished with 9 points and 3 assists in 25 minute off the bench. Freshman forward Reggie Chaney had 8 points (3-of-5 field goals and 2-of-2 free throws), 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal in 17 minutes off the bench. Sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien got his second career start in consecutive games and contributed 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 block in 19 minutes.
Arkansas shot 23-of-61 from the fild (37.7%), but that included a 10-of-20 effort from 3 as the Razorbacks were effective from distance against one of the ebst perimeter defenses in the country. The Hogs were outrebounded, 40-27, but they won the turnover battle, 15-7.
Kentucky made 21-of-42 field goals for 50%, and that included 6-of-13 from 3 for 46.2%. Freshman wing Keldon Johnson scored 13 points, but Arkansas held the Wildcats’ leading scorer, P.J. Washington, to only 9 points in 35 minutes.
Up next for Arkansas is a return home this weekend to host Ole Miss (noon CT, Saturday, March 2, SEC Network) as the Razorbacks will honor and celebate the 25th anniversay of the program’s only national championship in 1993-94. The Hogs wrap up their regular season next week at Vanderbilt (7:30 p.m. CT, Wednesday, March 6, SEC Network) followed by a home game in the season finale against Alabama (5 p.m. CT, Saturday, March 9, SEC Network). The SEC tournament is slated for March 13-17 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN.