By Kevin McPherson
This time, there was no furious comeback and no edge-of-your-seat finish. The Arkansas Razorbacks’s first five losses were by a combined 19 points and all went to the wire, but loss No. 6 was a decisive 19-point drumming, 106-87, at the hands of 3rd-ranked Tennessee on Tuesday at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, TN.
Arkansas (10-6, 1-3 SEC) has now lost three consecutive games and is off to an identical league start through 4 games that its 2016-17 and ’17-18 teams managed. But those were veteran teams that turned things around after 1-3 starts to finish 12-6 and 10-8 in SEC play, respectively, on their way to earning at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. The current ’18-19 Hog squad is much younger by comparison with eight newcomers among the 11 scholarship players who are available to compete on a team that was picked no higher than 10th in the 14-team SEC. After a promising 6-1 start to the season, Arkansas has hit several snags in going 4-5 in its last nine outings, which includes a 2-4 mark in its last six home games.
Prior to Tuesday’s lopsided defeat at Tennessee, close losses had defined the Razorbacks’ recent struggles. Arkansas lost narrowly twice at home last week — 57-51 against Florida on Wednesday and 94-88 in overtime against LSU on Saturday — after erasing double-digit, second-half deficits with opportunities to win down the stretch in both games. A small positive for the Hogs as they leave Knoxville is no matter how bad the beating was they maintained winning records in true road games (now 2-1) and games played outside BWA (now 3-2).
Meanwhile, co-defending SEC champion Tennessee (15-1, 4-0 SEC) continues to roll. The Vols have beaten each of their first four SEC opponents by double-digit margins, they’ve won 11 consecutive games, and they remain unbeaten in 10 home matchups. The Vols’ only blemish so far on the season is an 87-81 overtime loss against then-No. 2 Kansas at a neutral site on Nov. 23.
“I alluded to this earlier, I talked about (Tennessee) had the young stage probably two or three years ago, and now those guys have grown up, and you could see a really good basketball team,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said during his postgame radio interview. “They’re THE top team in the country, I think, the way they’re playing right now. They’ve got greath depth, and obviously tonight we ran into a buzzsaw.
“We got off to that deficit we didn’t want in the first half. I thought in the second half we fought and fought and hung in there, and actually outscored them in the end. And it was by a bunch of young guys out there on the floor, so that tells me our guys didn’t stop fighting. But again, you’ve got to be able to withstand those runs early on. And as I told our guys, some adversity is going to come, now how we handle it will be the difference in what takes place in this game.”
The Razorbacks have lost two straight games against the Rick Barnes-coached Vols (includes an 84-66 defeat in the SEC tournament semifinals last March). Prior to that, Anderson’s Hogs defeated Barnes’ Tennessee teams in three consecutive games going back to the ’15-16 season. In two of those Arkansas wins — 82-78 in Knoxville in ’16-17, and 95-93 in overtime in Fayetteville in ’17-18 — the Razorbacks overcame double-digit deficits to prevail.
But digging out of a deep hole was not in the cards for the Hogs on Tuesday as Tennessee blew out to a 23-6 lead at the 12:13 mark of the first half and never really looked back. Arkansas would get as close as 11 points, 28-17, fueled in part by two made 3-pointers by freshman guard isaiah Joe, but a 14-4 Vols’ spurt would stretch their advantage to 42-21 with 4:49 to play in the first half as Arkansas sophomore center Daniel Gafford watched fom the bench with foul trouble. The Hogs did close the opening 20 minutes with a 6-2 run, but it barely made a dent as the Vols led 55-34 at the break.
Gafford would score the first basket of the second half on a lay-in, but Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield — who was scoreless in the first half — strung together 14 straight points for the Vols as Tennessee pushed its lead to 27 points, 69-42, with 14:09 left to play. Capped by Lamonte Turner’s triple at the 7:53 mark, the Vols enjoyed their biggest lead at 91-61. The Hogs would close the game on a 26-15 run for the final margin, but it was strictly academic.
The Vols were led by reserve guards Turner (21 points on 6-of-8 field goals, including 3-of-4 from 3, and 6-of-6 free throws) and Jordan Bowden (19 points on 6-of-7 field goals, including 5-of-6 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws). 2018 SEC Player of the Year and junior forward Grant Williams finished with 18 points (2-of-7 field goals and 14-of-14 free throws), 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 block. Schofield, a senior forward who was ALL SEC 1st team in 2018, finished with 17 points (7-of-11 field goals, including 3-of-4 from 3), 5 rebounds, and 2 assists. Senior center Kyle Alexander had 12 points (4-of-6 field goals and 4-of-5 free throws), 5 rebounds, and 2 steals. Junior guard Jordan Bone had 8 points, 8 assists, and 2 steals.
Arkansas was led by Joe, who broke out of a shooting slump to score 23 points (7-of-15 field goals including 7-of-13 from 3, plus 2-of-2 free throws) to go with 4 rebounds and 2 steals in 30 minutes. The Fort Smith native had only scored 25 points combined in Arkansas’s first three SEC games as he struggled with his shot. Sophomore wing Mason Jones had 18 points — he’s tallied 70 points combined in the Hogs’ last three games — to go with a team-high-tying 7 rebounds, a team-high 6 assists, and 1 steal in 33 minutes.
Plagued by foul problems in both halves, Gafford saw only 20 minutes but managed 10 points (4-of-6 free throws and 2-of-4 free throws), 7 rebounds, and 2 steals before fouling out with 4:38 to play. Freshman forward Reggie Chaney had his second consecutive double-digit scoring game, finishing with 11 points (5-of-7 field goals and 1-of-2 free throws), 6 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 block in 20 minutes. Chaney was the only frontline player in the Hogs’ usual 9-player rotation to not foul out as junior forward Adrio Bailey and sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien joined Gafford on the bench with 5 fouls each. That allowed freshman forward Ethan Henderson of Little Rock to check in at the 3:31 mark for the first SEC action of his career, and he made the most of the opportunity by contributing 2 points, 2 steals, and 1 rebound.
Free throw shooting has haunted the Hogs all season, and even in a lopsided loss the free throw line more than anything elese illuminated their struggles: Tennessee came in as the SEC’s fourth-best free throw shooting team and shot 35-of-39 from the line for 90%, while Arkansas came in as the league’s worst team from the line and backed that up with an anemic 13-of-22 for 59.1%. In a strange stat for a team that lost by 19 points, Arkansas actually made two more field goals than Tennessee — 32-of-67 for 47.8% compared to 30-of-57 for 52.5%. Tennessee, which came in as the SEC’s best overall shooting team, made 11-of-18 in 3-point field goals for 61.1%, compared to the Hogs’ respectable 10-of-26 effort for 38.6%.
Both teams had 9 steals, but the Vols won the rebounding battle (34-33) and fast-break points (11-6), while Arkansas won points-in-the-paint (42-32) and second-chance-points (19-15). The Vols narrowly won the turnover battle (19-17), but they dominated points-off-turnovers (35-20). Tennessee also more than doubled-up Arkansas in bench scoring (50-23).
Anderson explained after the game that his Hogs did not handle adversity well early in the game, and that caused things to snowball quickly for his young team.
“In a couple of instances, let’s say we’re down maybe eight points or something like that, it seemed like we tried to come down in a hurry and make maybe an eight-point play, and we turn it over, then we come back and turn it over again,” Anderson said. “And then of course, the greatest neutralizer is the free throw line. They get there 23 times in the first half, and I don’t think they need any help. They go 35-for-39, and I thought they were the more physical basketball team … We had some bad turnovers at the wrong time that led to easy opportunities for them.
“So again, a very good basketball team. It was a tremendous challenge for our young Razorbacks, but I loved the fight, I loved the resilience. I thought even a guy like Ethan Henderson coming in and just showing what he’s capable of doing. And we saw Reggie, again even with foul trouble, he came in and gave us some big minutes.
“I’m a competitor … until (the clock) says 0:00, we’re going to continue to fight, scratch, and claw, and I thought our guys did. I thought we started getting better in our matchup defense, and getting out there to the shooters, and rebounding the ball and not let them just post up … but again, you’ve got to play almost a perfect game, especially with the way (Tennessee is) playing right now.”
Counting the Saturday loss against LSU, Arkansas has surrendered 200 points combined in back-to-back games — that includes 105 combined points in the first halves of those two games. On the season the Hogs had held teams to below 40% field goal shooting and below 30% from 3, but LSU and Tennessee combined for 63-of-121 field goals for 52.1%, including 21-of-43 from 3 for 48.8%.
Things don’t get easier for Arkansas over its next three games. The Hogs travel Saturday to Oxford, MS, to play upstart and 18th-ranked Ole Miss (13-3, 3-1 SEC), which lost its first SEC game Tuesday night, 83-69, at home against LSU. Next week, Arkansas returns home to play Missouri (9-5, 0-2 SEC) on Jan. 23, and then its back on the road against No. 8 Texas Tech (14-1) on Jan. 26 in the Big XII-SEC Challenge.