By Kevin McPherson
With both teams badly needing a win and turning up the defensive pressure to a boil Saturday in Lubbock, TX, it was host Texas Tech that got the last stop to hold on for a 67-64 win over Arkansas in the Big 12 / SEC Challenge.
Leading 65-62, 14th-ranked Texas Tech (16-4) forced an Arkansas turnover at the 0:06 mark before converting two free throws with 4.8 seconds remaining to ice the win and snap a 3-game losing skid. Arkansas (11-8) has lost 5 of its last 6 games, including three on the road against nationally ranked teams spanning the last 11 days.
The Razorbacks forced 21 turnovers and held the Red Raiders without a field goal in the final 7:36 of the game, but a poor free throw-shooting second half (10-of-17 for 58.8%) included a 2-of-4 stretch in the final 3:49 of the game while the Red Raiders shot 5-of-6 from the line (83.3%) in the same span.
“We came out and took a punch, and punched back,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said during his post-game radio interview. “And that’s what you want to see, especially on the road in an environment like this at Texas Tech. Give them (Texas Tech) credit, they did what they had to do. We had the pressure shifted on them when we cut it to two, and all we’ve got to do is just be solid on defense, and we bailed them out a couple of times.
“Our defense was stifling. I thought we were just in tune, and I thought we had the game disrupted. We sped them up, and just came up a little short … I thought our guys brought it.”
Arkansas led 33-30 at halftime after a running, buzzer-beating 3-point basket by sophomore point guard Jalen Harris, and after falling behind early in the second half the Hogs jumped ahead again briefly, 40-39, on sophomore wing Mason Jones’ 3-point basket with 17:02 to play. But the Red Raiders, who started the second half shooting 8-of-11 field goals that included 5 made 3s, would go on a 13-2 run for a 52-42 lead at the 13:04 mark. Texas Tech would expand its lead to 12 points, 60-48, on Norense Odiase’s dunk with 7:37 remaining in the game, but from there Arkansas would claw back and not give up a field goal the rest of the way.
Sophomore center Daniel Gafford, who scored 12 of his team-high 14 points in the second half, had 5 points to help key a 14-4 Arkansas run run that pulled the Hogs within 64-62 with 1:01 to play. But that run included the aforementioned 2-of-4 free throw stretch (from 2:06 to 1:01) that left the Hogs just short of tying the game down the stretch.
Still, the Hogs had their chances in the final minute. A solid defensive possession turned into Jones’s 5th and disqualifying foul at the end of the shot clock, and Texas Tech star wing Jarrett Culver made 1-of-2 at the free line to put the Red Raiders ahead, 65-62, with 32 seconds remaining. Arkansas would advance the ball past halfcourt and call a timeout with 26 seconds left, but once play resumed Texas Tech’s vaunted defense — top 3 nationally in field-goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage, and points-per-game — denied passing lanes inside to Gafford as well as on the perimeter. The Red Raiders got a deflection that caused the ball to bounce into freshman guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson’s foot, and a kicked-ball turnover was called that gave the ball back to Texas Tech with only 0:06 left. From there the Hogs were forced to foul guard Davide Moretti, a 91% free throw shooter who made both freebies at 4.8 seconds to seal the victory.
“They made 10 threes … and we had a chance to win this game,” said Anderson, who is now 2-3 in Big 12 / SEC Challenge games at Arkansas. “So that tells you that we did some good things. But I keep saying we’re not young, it’s just the inexperience kind of shows up at the wrong time.
“Now we’re getting a litte bit more in tune to one another. We played some match-up (zone), we played some man, and we’re starting to recognize how to fix it on defense and being in the right position. It’s a shame we couldn’t come home with a W. I really had a great feeling coming in here — with practice and how we’ve been playing — but we’ve just got to continue to work, and just continue to try to get better.”
Arkansas, the worst free throw shooting team in the SEC, is now 5-6 on the season in one- or two-possession games with under a minute to play. After giving up 284 combined points in three consecutive losses to now-No. 25 LSU, now-No. 1 Tennessee, and now-No. 20 Ole Miss, the Hogs forced a total of 45 turnovers in their last two games — a 72-60 home win Wedneday over Missouri, and Saturday’s road loss against Texas Tech.
Arkansas, now 2-3 in true road games and 3-4 outside of Bud Walton Arena, shot 21-of-48 field goals for 43.8%, but that included only 4-of-19 from 3 for 21.1%. The Hogs shot 8-of-9 free throws in the first half for 88.9%, but the 10-of-17 effort in the final 20 minutes brought the free throw shooting total to 18-of-26 for 69.2%. The Hogs were plus-4 in turnovers, but lost points-off-turnovers, 26-25. Arkansas dominated points-in-the-paint, 28-16, and the Hogs won the glass, 27-25, and second-chance-points, 11-2.
Gafford, who sat the final 10:50 of the first half with two fouls, shot a perfect 6-of-6 from the field to go with 2-of-5 free throws for his 14 points in 26 minutes. He also had 5 rebounds and 1 block. Jones was 3-of-8 field goals (including 2-of-6 from 3) and 3-of-4 free throws for 11 points to go with 3 rebounds, 1 assist. and 1 steal in 27 minutes. Harris also had 11 points — on 4-of-12 field goals including 1-of-3 from 3, plus 3-of-3 free throws — to go with 3 steals, 2 assists, 1 rebound, and 3 turnovers in 34 minutes.
Freshman shooting guard Isaiah Joe — the SEC’s leader in made 3-pointers and the top 3-point shooting freshman in the nation — was playing with a cold, according to Anderson, and finished with only 5 points on 1-of-6 field goals (including 0-of-5 from 3) and 3-of-3 free throws in 29 minutes. He also had 2 steals and 1 assist. Junior Adrio Bailey had his most productive game in weeks, finishing with 8 points, 2 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 assist in 24 minutes. Embery-Simpson played 26 minutes off the bench and had 5 points to go with 2 steals, 1 rebounds, and 1 assist. Reserves Reggie Chaney, Gabe Osabuohien, and Desi Sills combined for 34 minutes, 10 points, and 7 rebounds.
Texas Tech, which surrendered 15 of its 21 turnovers in the first half, made 22-of-43 field goals for 51.2% (including 10-of-19 from 3 for 52.6%) — both numbers well above the Red Raiders season shooting percentages — and 13-of-19 free throws for 68.4%. Moretti finished with a career- and game-high 21 points (6-of-9 field goals, including 3-of-6 from 3, plus 6-of-7 free throws) in 32 minutes. Culver had 15 points (5-of-12 field goals, including 4-of-5 from 3, plus 1-of-4 free throws) to go with 4 assists, 3 rebounds, and 3 steals in 36 minutes. Senior-grad transfer Matt Mooney finished with 12 points (4-of-8 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, plus 3-of-4 free throws) to go with 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 29 minutes.
It was the 79th meeting between the two teams, who were league foes back in the now-defunct Southwest Conference, and Texas Tech emerged with a 40-39 edge in the all-time series. After 10 games played Saturday in the Big 12 / SEC Challenge, the Big 12 claims bragging rights in 2019 with a 6-4 record.
Arkansas is back home against Georgia on Tuesday, Jan. 29, before a road game against No. 25 LSU on Saturday, Feb. 2.