By Kevin McPherson
The Arkansas Razorbacks needed nearly immaculate February runs for hard-charging success in March the past two seasons, but a second consecutive setback in mid-February 2023 in the form of a 62-56 loss against SEC-second-place Texas A&M on Wednesday in College Station, Texas, has the Hoop Hogs scrambling with an NCAA Tournament Bubble resume heading down the stretch of the regular season.
The Razorbacks had their 12-point first-half lead completely dissolved early in the second half, and a back-and-forth battle that ensued the rest of the way came down to the Aggies executing in the final minutes while the Hogs completely face-planted. Arkansas — which led for just more than 31 minutes — went ahead for the last time, 53-51, on two made free throws by senior forward / center Makhi Mitchell with 5:54 remaining before going scoreless over the next 5:42 while in the same span the Aggies (they led for a grand total of 5 minutes) made 6-of-6 free throws with two putbacks mixed in for a game-clinching 10-0 run and a 61-53 lead with 20 seconds to play.
During that scoreless drought, the Hogs were 0-of-5 shooting from the field (all three-point attempts) with three turnovers and 0-of-3 shooting at the free throw line. The Hogs were outscored 38-23 in the second half.
Arkansas (17-9, 6-7 SEC) had won 5 consecutive league games before losing back-to-back matchups against A&M on Wednesday and Mississippi State (70-64) at home on Saturday. The Hogs dropped to 2-6 in true road games on the season, and in three of those losses (including against A&M) the Hogs held double-digit leads. Arkansas holds an overall 6-7 mark in games played away from their home at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville (Arkansas is 11-2 at home on the season).
Arkansas is now 2-2 in February in ’22-23 after the program had lost only one game in its 14 February tilts spanning the ’20-21 and ’21-22 campaigns.
“We haven’t been very good closing on the road at all,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said. “We’ve lost a tremendous amount of close games. So closing has been an issue for this group. It started at the end of the half when Hefner hit the three. And then they came out and knocked down threes to start the second half. Then our shot selection, our passing was poor late game.
“I mean, 1 of 10 from three in the second half. And then we shoot 50% from the foul line in a close game. That’s not a recipe to win a game. And then we have gave up 6 of 12 from three for them. I’ve said it all year long, if we don’t guard the three, we’re not going to win games. Defensively we were better rebounding the ball than we were in Bud Walton, but they did come up with some crucial rebounds. Our shot selection … you know … We struggle to close games.”
Arkansas was the better team in the first half at both ends while building a 33-21 lead before settling on a 33-24 advantage at the break, but the second half began with a defensive letdown as the Aggies made their first 5 field goals, including 3-of-3 from 3, and 1-of-1 free throw in a 14-4 run to take a 38-37 lead. Both teams would surge at times from that point on as both would enjoy narrow leads, although as mentioned above the Hogs held a scoreboard advantage for most of the game.
The Hogs were 1-of-10 from 3 and 4-of-8 at the free throw line in the second half, while A&M was 4-of-5 shooting from 3 and 12-of-14 from the free throw line in the second half. The Aggies also suffered only 3 second-half turnovers compared to the Hogs’ 7 giveaways in the final 20 minutes. Arkansas shot 9-of-25 overall from the field in the second half (36.0%), while A&M was slightly better at 11-of-27 field goal shooting (40.7%). For the game, Arkansas had 17 assists and made 22-of-50 field goals (44.0%), including 5-of-16 from 3 (31.3%), and 7-of-14 free throws (50.0%). A&M had 9 assists and was 19-of-54 shooting from the field (35.2%), including 6-of-12 from 3 (50.0%), and 18-of-22 from the free throw line (81.8%).
A&M won the turnover battle (13-9), points-off-turnovers (11-4), rebounds (36-33, including 9-5 on the offensive glass), second-chance-points (6-5), and fastbreak points (10-6). Arkansas won points-in-the-paint (30-24) and bench scoring (12-7).
Junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis led Arkansas with 14 points (5-of-13 field goals, including 4-of-10 from 3, and 0-of-3 free throws) to go with 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 2 turnovers in 39 minutes. Makhi Mitchell finished with 11 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 26 minutes. The Hogs’ two leading scorers coming in — junior guard Ricky Council IV and freshman guard Anthony Black — combined for only 15 points on a collective 6-of-20 shooting from the field, including 1-of-5 from 3, and 2-of-4 free throws. Black matched his career-high with 8 assists to go with 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and 3 turnovers in 38 minutes. Council also had 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 turnovers in 36 minutes. Freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh (8 points and 5 rebounds) and senior center Makhel Mitchell (4 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 blocks) each fouled out.
Freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., played for the second consecutive game after missing 13 contests spanning mid-December to last week, but he played only 4 first-half minutes and finished 0-of-1 field goal shooting with 2 turnovers.
“We’re just trying to win a game and keep our season alive,” Musselman said when asked about his decision to keep Smith on the bench the entire second half.
The Razorbacks have lost three straight games in College Station since last winning there during the 2018-19 campaign, and they split their season home-and-away series against the Aggies as their all-time series record slipped to 106-60.
Texas A&M (19-7, 11-2 SEC) has won four straight games while remaining unbeaten at home in league play. The Aggies were led by sophomore guard Wade Taylor IV’s 18 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, and 2 steals. Senior wing Dennis Dexter had 14 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1 steal. Guard Tyrece Radford had 12 points, and big men Henry Coleman III and Julius Marble combined for 11 points and 7 rebounds.
The loss against the Aggies (NET No. 35) counts as a Quad-1 result. Based on the current NCAA NET rankings, Arkansas (NET No. 20) is now 2-6 in Q1 games that factor into its postseason resume (a win at Kentucky, a win over San Diego State in a neutral-site game, and losses to Texas A&M on the road, Baylor on the road, Missouri on the road, Alabama at home, Auburn on the road, and Creighton at a neutral site). The Hogs are 4-2 in Q2 games (home wins over Texas A&M, Missouri, and Bradley, a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home loss to Mississippi State, and a road loss to Vanderbilt), and they are 11-1 in Q3/4 games.
Musselman fell to 90-37 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 42-29 record against SEC teams and a 6-2 mark spanning the last two NCAA Tournaments that culminated in back-to-back Elite Eight runs and back-to-back final national Top 10 rankings.
“Every game we have is hard,” Musselman said. “I mean, this team’s still got to grow in a lot of areas, and we only have five games to go, so we’ve got to get ready for Florida.”
Next up for the Hoop Hogs is a return home for an SEC game against Florida on Saturday at BWA (1 p.m. CT, ESPN2).
Musselman started the combination of Black, Davis, Council, and the Mitchell twins for the fifth consecutive game.
Davis and Black each hit three-pointers and the Mitchell twins each blocked a shot as Arkansas jumped ahead 11-4, but Texas A&M hit a triple and made 4-of-4 free throws in a 7-0 spurt that tied the game at 11-all.
Davis struck for two more three-pointers with Walsh contributing 5 points and Council 4 points as the Hogs outscored the Aggies 22-10 to take a 33-21 lead in the closing seconds of the first half, but the Aggies hit a deep buzzer-beating triple to pull within 33-24 at the break.
Arkansas shot 13-of-25 from the field (52.0%) in the first half, including 4-of-6 from 3 (66.7%), but only 3-of-6 at the free throw line (50.0%). Defensively, the Hogs held the Aggies to 8-of-27 field goals (29.6%), including 2-of-7 from 3 (28.6%). A&M did make 6-of-8 free throws (75.0%).
Arkansas was plus-6 on the glass (20-14) and each team had 6 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
Davis led the Hogs with 11 first-half points.