By Kevin McPherson
FAYETTEVILLE — After a strong 6-1 start to the non-conference season, the Arkansas Razorbacks hit a few snags going 2-2 in their last four games and were looking for — maybe even hoping for — a firing-on-all-cylinders final tuneup heading into the start of SEC play next week.
Although it didn’t work out that way, the Hogs avoided a fifth straight last-minute, nail-biting finish as they erased a 4-point deficit with a decisive 28-13 run in the final 10:43 of the game to pull away from Austin Peay, 76-65, on Friday at Bud Walton Arena.
Sophomore center Daniel Gafford led the way and recorded his sixth double-double of the season — 16 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 3 steals. Freshman guard Isaiah Joe of Fort Smith had 15 points (including 4-of-7 from 3) and a game-high 5 steals as the Hogs’ racked up 14 total takeaways.
But maybe the biggest spark came off the bench in the form of freshman guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson (who scored all 14 of his points in that game-closing 28-13 run), freshman forward Reggie Chaney (12 points and 4 rebounds), freshman guard Desi Sills (5 assists and 2 steals), and freshman wing Jordan Phillips (4 points and 1 steal in a 6-3 run to give the Hogs a 34-33 halftime lead).
Arkansas (9-3) will have 8 days to prepare for its SEC opener at Texas A&M on Jan. 5, while Austin Peay (8-5) had its 6-game winning streak snapped as it moves into Ohio Valley Conference play.
“I’m very proud of the effort of those guys coming off the bench” said Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson, whose Hogs have won back-to-back games for the first time since having their 6-game winning streak snapped against Western Kentucky at BWA on Dec. 8. “I thought they were the difference in the game …The second half we have some guys that came off and gave us big, big minutes and hopefully it was a break-through game.
“Keyshawn went on a run by himself. I always tell our guys be ready. He was. I thought our team got better tonight and why it got better was we saw some guys, especially young guys … that were out there with the game on the line, and as it was on the line, they were out there making plays offensively and defensively, sharing the basketball. I thought it got really exciting in here when that was happening. It’s growth with our basketball team.”
Embery-Simpson had patiently prepared for his chance to put his imprint on a win.
“I know it was going to take time to get back to where I was on both ends conditioning-wise and all-around to show what I can do,” said Embery-Simpson, who battled injuries as a senior in 2017-18 at IMG Academy as well as the preseason as a freshman at Arkansas. “It felt great.”
Chaney, who got his first career start in Arkansas’s 73-70 win in its previous game against Texas State on Saturday, was ready to be productive and have an impact playing off the bench against Austin Peay.
“I just came in confident,” Chaney said. “Coach said whenever your number is called be ready so I was just coming in confident on both ends.”
Anderson was also pleased with Phillips’s contributions in the first half.
“I thought he gave us some great minutes and we are going to build on that,” Anderson said of his 6-7 freshman wing who missed all of the preseason and several early games while recovering from hip and knee injuries. “Guys can play when it is mop-up time or a 20-point lead and all that stuff, but I am talking about when the game is on the line.
“That is going to come back and pay big dividends for us. You team gets to grow and it bring competition.”
Arkansas trailed 52-48 at the 10:43 mark when Embery-Simpson (12 points on three lay-ins and two triples), Gafford (4 points on 2-of-2 free throws and a dunk), a Chaney (4 points on back-to-back lay-ins) fueled a 20-5 run that gave the Hogs their first double-digit lead, 68-57, with 4:16 to play.
The Governors used a 5-0 run to pull within 68-62 at the 2:14 mark, but Arkansas point guard Jalen Harris made only his third 3-point shot of the season (he’s now 3-of-27) to push the Hogs back up by nine, 71-62, with 1:48 to play.
The Razorbacks would make 5-of-6 free throws in the final minute to punctuate their 28-13 come-from-behind run in the final 10:43 of the game.
Arkansas came in averaging 82.4 points per game but failed to crack the 80-point scoring mark for the fifth straight game, but defensively the Hogs held the Governors 20 points below their season scoring average of 85 points-per-game.
Out-rebounded (minus-20 combined) and outscored (36-5 combined) in second-chance-points in its last two games against Georgia Tech and Texas State, Arkansas once again struggled on the glass against Austin Peay as the Governors out-rebounded the Hogs (42-34) and doubled them up in second-chance-points (14-7).
The Razorbacks forced 18 turnovers (for a plus-7 advantage), including 14 steals that gave them a dominant 21-5 advantage in point-off-turnovers. The Hogs also won points-in-the-paint (38-24), assists (21-11), fast-break points (13-6), and bench scoring (31-29).
Arkansas warmed up its shooting in the second half, making 14-of-29 field goals to finish the game 27-of-62 for 43.5%, including 7-of-17 from 3 for 41.2%.
Arkansas employed more if its matchup 2-3 zone in the second half as the Hogs’ limited the Governors to 12-of-33 shooting for 36.4%, including 1-of-16 from 3 for 6.3%. For the game, Austin Peay shot 24-of-59 for 40.7%, including 4-of-25 from 3 for 16.0%.
The Razorbacks struggled at the free throw line early (4-of-8 in the first half that turned into 8-of-16 at the 11:20 mark of the second half) before closing with a 7-of-8 effort down the stretch. Arkansas finished the game 15-of-24 for 62.5%. The Governors came in shooting 71.1% from the line, but fell below that with 13-of-20 for 65.0%.
In their last outing against Texas State, the Hogs shook up their starting lineup for the first time in 2018-19 as Anderson inserted freshman forward Reggie Chaney in place of junior forward Adrio Bailey, a move that ended the Hogs’ 10-game run to begin the season of starting the same lineup of Daniel Gafford, Jalen Harris, isaiah Joe, Mason Jones, and Bailey.
But Bailey rejoined the starting unit Friday, and he scored 5 straight points for the Hogs early in the second half after having only 2 points (on 1-of-16 field goal shooting) in Arkansas’s previous four games.
Harris finished with 7 points, 7 assists, 2 steals, and only 1 turnover. Sophomore wing Mason Jones, coming off a career-high-tying 21-point effort in the Hogs’ 3-point win over Texas State, struggled shooting the ball and finished with 2 points on 1-of-10 field goals.
Steve Harris, a 6-4 senior, led Austin Peay with 15 points, while Dayton Gumm and Jabari McGhee each had 10 points off the bench for the Governors. Sophomore Terry Taylor came in leading Austin Peay in scoring and rebounding (17.8 points and 8.3 rebounds), but finished with only 8 points on 3-of-9 shooting to go with his 10 rebounds.