Not one, not two, but three streaks ended Saturday as the Arkansas Razorbacks overcame a 13-point first-half deficit and found a way this time to escape Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville with a grinding victory, 73-70, over Texas State.
The Hogs (8-3) shook up their starting lineup for the first time in 2018-19, they snapped a two-game home losing streak after dropping the previous two contests by a combined five points, and they ended an eight-game winning streak for Texas State (10-2). The Bobcats of the Sun Belt conference had also won their last four road games.
“There were multiple fixes we had to make,” sophomore center Daniel Gafford said regarding the Hogs’ back-to-back BWA losses against Western Kentucky (78-77) and Georgia Tech (69-65) in a span of 11 days. “We had a meeting before one of our practices. We had a meeting with the coaches. Coaches talked with players individually. There were a lot of things we did. We just had to get our minds back right and get set on the main task, and that’s to win games in Bud Walton.”
Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson knew it would not be easy getting back on track against a tough, veteran Texas State team that had already proven itself on the road.
“We played against a really good Texas State team … their experience showed,” Anderson said. “We had chances to put them away with a little over two minutes to go but they made big shots and that’s what veteran teams do. But the one thing we did going down the stretch we made free throws. And we took care of the basketball much better in the second half than we did in the first half. I thought that enabled them to make the game as close as it was early on, points off turnovers. I think we reversed that in the second half where we were able to score off some of their turnovers.
“I thought some of our guys had checked out in that first part of the game when we’re down 19-6. But that’s the first half. I am concerned about the slow start, but we did turn around and our defense was really good. That enabled us to get back in the game … A good win against a good team.”
Arkansas came in averaging 83.3 points per game but failed to break the 80-point scoring mark for the fourth consecutive game. The Hogs are now 2-2 in that stretch, and much like their 12-point win over Texas-San Antonio in North Little Rock a week ago, Arkansas used the free throw line to emerge victorious Satuday against the Bobcats.
The Hogs shot 28-of-40 at the line for 70% — including 15-of-19 for 78.9% in the final 5:14 of the game — compared to Texas State’s total of 8-of-21 for 38.1%. Against UTSA, Arkansas was 27-of-34 for 79.4% — including 11-of-14 for 78.6% in the final 1:57 of that game. Arkansas was a 62.3% free throw shooting team through its first eight games, but a 62-of-83 effort for 74.7% over the last three contests has been a considerable improvement.
Getting caught up in yet another grind game with its opponent once again dictating pace and tempo, Arkansas frequently had struggles and lapses at both ends of the floor against Texas State. Especially early as the Hogs looked to still be stuck in the mud offensively — and lost on the perimeter defensively — after falling behind 19-6 at the 11:33 mark of the first half as the Bobcats started 5-of-6 from behind the arc while the Hogs coughed up 7 early turnovers.
But sparked by the sophomore trio of Gafford, Mason Jones, and Gabe Osabuohien the Hogs ran off 17 unanswered points in a 5-minute span for a 23-19 lead in the first half and never trailed again. The same trio finished the game on the floor together as each was key in Arkansas maintaining a lead over the final 14:27 of the game.
Jones tied his career-high with 21 points (5-of-7 field goals including 1-of-3 from 3, plus 10-of-13 free throws) to go with 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals in 33 minutes. Jones had 9 points — two old-fashioned 3-point plays plus a 3-point basket — to go with some scrappy steals and nice entry passes to Gafford for scores in that 17-0 Arkansas run that turned the game around midway through the first half. He also had 7 consecutive points for the Hogs in a 7-2 run that expanded a two-point lead to 60-53 with 4:12 to play. Jones made 7 of 9 free throws (77.8%) in the final 5:14 of the game.
“I just felt like both times (Jones’ first and second half scoring runs) my team needed a spark from somebody,” Jones said. “Coach A told me to step up. So I felt like I needed to step up to the table. I was that guy today. Make the right plays at the right time when we needed it.”
“I thought Mason was big,” Anderson said. “Early on we were settling for shots that were out there much like the other night, 3-point shots. But I felt we started attacking the basket and that was a big difference. The game sped up and of course he had the hot hand. He showed another part of his game going off the dribble. He’d get to the basket, or pull up or find somebody else or get to the free throw line. You’ve got to have somebody step up and make plays and that’s kind of what has been missing. It’s going to be a game of runs. We know that. And there are going to be opportunities where you have to have guys make plays … Mason made some big ones for us …”
Gafford notched his fifth double-double of the season — 19 points (5-of-9 field goals and 9-of-14 free throws) and 10 rebounds to go with 2 blocks and 1 assist in a team-high 35 minutes. He had 11 points and 6 rebounds in the first half as the Hogs led 34-27 at the break. Gafford was 6-of-9 at the foul line in the second half, and his dunk at the 14:27 mark gave Arkansas the lead for good at 40-38.
“I felt more comfortable,” Gafford said of his double-double performance. “The last couple of games, as you could see, I haven’t been producing as much as I usually do.”
Osabuohien was Arkansas’s most tenacious on-ball defender in both halves, finishing with 4 points (including his second career 3-pointer that cut a Texas State 6-point lead in half in the first 20 minutes), 5 rebounds, a team-high-tying 4 assists, and 2 drawn charges in 22 minutes off the bench. In a game where sophomore point guard and SEC-assist leader Jalen Harris managed only 1 assist, Osabuohien and Jones were criticial in feeding the ball from the wings inside for easy scores by Gafford, who had a considerable size advantage against the Bobcats’ frontline.
“We had some big moments from a guy like Gabe Osabuohien coming off the bench and giving us a big lift,” said Anderson, who added that Osabuohien’s two drawn charges were “momentum plays.”
Freshman shooting guard Isaiah Joe came in as the Hogs’ second leading scorer at 16.4 points per game, and he finished with 10 points as he and Gafford are the only two Hogs to score in double figures in all 11 games. It almost didn’t happen for Joe, the SEC’s best 3-point shooter who struggled from the field (only 1-of-5 from 3). But he scored 8 of his points in the crunch-time minutes — a 3-pointer with 3:39 to play that gave the Hogs their biggest lead, 63-53, followed by 5-of-6 free throw shooting (83.3%) all in the final 59 seconds to help ice the win.
Freshman forward Reggie Chaney garnered his first career start with junior Adrio Bailey playing off the bench, a move that ended the Hogs 10-game streak of starting the same lineup of Gafford, Harris, Joe, Jones, and Bailey. Chaney was shaky with turnovers early and actually played better coming off the bench in the second half as he finished with 7 points (3-of-4 field goals and 1-of-1 free throws), 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 5 turnovers in only 12 minutes.
“I thought Reggie started off a little nervous,” Anderson said. “You expect that from a freshman in his first start. But we had some guys come off and give us some quality minutes.”
Harris had 10 points (5-of-9 field goals), but uncharacteristically had only 1 assist and 2 turnovers.
In the same vein that Arkansas won the game at the free throw line, Texas State built its early 13-point lead and was always within striking distance because of its dominance behind the arc. The Bobcats finished 12-of-26 from 3 for 46.2% compared to the Hogs’ 3-of-11 effort for 27.3%. Texas State also won the rebounding battle (42-34) because of a hefty advantage on the offensive glass (17-9) that also led to a whopping win in second-chance-points (21-2). Arkansas won points-in-the-paint (28-18) due in large part by the interior presence of Gafford and Chaney.
Both teams were sloppy with the ball — 16 turnovers for TSU, 15 for UA — and both teams managed 19 points off the other team’s giveaways. Arkansas won fast-break points (8-2) and steals/blocks (13-7), but Texas State won bench scoring (19-6). Overall, the Hogs shot 21-of-47 from the field for 44.7%, and Texas State hit 25-of-60 field goals for 41.7%.
The Bobcats were led by senior guard Tre’Larenz Nottingham’s 18 points (including 6-of-13 from 3), junior guard Nijal Pearson’s 16 points (nearly 4 points off his 19.9-point scoring average), and senior guard Jaylen Shead (14 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists).
Arkansas will enjoy the holidays with a 6-game break between games. The Razorbacks close out the December portion of their schedule against Austin Peay on Friday, Dec. 28, before opening up SEC play on the road against Texas A&M on Jan. 5.