By Kevin McPherson
Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament Bubble resume simply could not afford to take on a road loss against lowly South Carolina on Saturday, and the Razorbacks survived their own predictable second-half woes amid a late Gamecocks run to make sure that didn’t happen while collecting their first road win of the season, 65-63, in Columbia, S.C.
Arkansas (16-7, 5-5 SEC) picked up its fourth consecutive league win to break even in the SEC standings for the first time since the team started 1-1 a month ago. The Hogs improved to 1-5 in road games as part of an overall 5-6 mark in games played away from their home at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville (the team is 11-1 at home).
It’s a great start to February for an Arkansas program that has lost only one game in its last 15 February tilts going back to the 2020-21 campaign.
South Carolina (8-15, 1-9 SEC) has lost 7 consecutive games and remains winless at home in league play.
After leading by 13 points, 43-30, early in the second half, the Hogs surrendered a 10-0 run that put South Carolina ahead, 59-58, with 4:03 to play. The teams would trade scores starting with Arkansas freshman guard Anthony Black hitting two free throws followed by an up-and-under finger-roll layup by junior Ricky Council IV and a Black driving bank shot as Arkansas forged a 64-63 lead with 1:21 to play.
An offensive foul call on a screen and a missed three-pointer by South Carolina mixed in with a missed field goal attempt and a missed front-end of a 1-and-1 free throw opportunity by Arkansas led to the Gamecocks taking a timeout with possession of the ball and 19.5 seconds to play still trailing 64-63. Carolina would work the clock down with guard Hayden Brown missing a reverse layup attempt and Black securing the defensive rebound.
Black was fouled to stop the clock with 2.5 seconds remaining, and he made the first of two free throws to extend the Hogs to a 65-63 lead, resulting in Carolina calling a timeout with 2.2 seconds remaining after rebounding Black’s missed attempt on his second free throw. The Gamecocks would call a second timeout, then heave the ball past mid-court on the inbounds pass to big man Josh Gray, whose three-point attempt was off as time expired.
“I thought defensively the last possession, not the last possession, but the possession before, I thought we did great job,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said. “Actually even the one that Devo (Davis) drew the offensive foul. We wanted to try to face guard, we wanted to try to blow up screens. We didn’t do a very good job of fighting over screens, especially with Meechie Johnson. We talked to our team about South Carolina beating Clemson, whose been a ranked team for a lot of the year, and about them going into Lexington and winning there.
“So any road game is a good win. I think a few weeks ago, this game we played, a very similar tone at LSU. We lose that game.”
Senior reserve forward Jalen Graham led the Hogs in scoring with 16 points (8-of-10 field goals) to go with 2 rebounds and 3 turnovers in 21 minutes. Junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis had 15 points (included 4-of-10 shooting from 3), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 3 turnovers in 40 minutes. Black (13 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal) and Council (10 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 turnovers) both matched Davis by logging 40 minutes of playing time each. Freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh played off the bench and registered 4 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. The Mitchell twins — Makhi and Makhel — started and combined for 7 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 block.
During a too-close-for-comfort second half, Arkansas survived a defensive letdown combined with a sputtering offense against the Gamecocks’ 1-3-1 zone defense. The Hogs yielded 50% field goal shooting, including 45.5% from 3, to Carolina in the final 20 minutes as the Gamecocks finished 24-of-58 for the game (41.4%), including 7-of-19 from 3 (36.8%). Conversely on offense, the Hogs shot poorly in the second half as they abandoned ball-movement via the pass while dribbling down the shot clock on the perimeter which led to an abundance of ill-advised, half-hearted three-point shot attempts. Arkansas shot 37.9% from the field in the final half, including 2-of-10 from 3 for 20%. For the game, the Hogs made 26-of-55 field goals (47.3%), including 4-of-15 from 3 (26.7%).
For the first time on the road in over a month, the Razorbacks were not blown out by a double-digit margin in free throw attempts in the second half. Arkansas was 9-of-13 at the foul line (69.2%) for the game, including 5-of-8 in the second half, while Carolina was 8-of-14 on freebies (57.1%) for the game, including 3-of-6 in the second half.
Arkansas was plus-16 in bench scoring (20-4) and plus-4 in points-in-the-paint (38-34) while finishing minus-1 in turnovers (11-10), minus-6 in points-off-turnovers (14-8), minus-2 in rebounds (34-32), and minus-2 in second-chance-points (12-10). Each team scored 8 fastbreak points.
“Our younger players, we had Jordan Walsh and Anthony Black, two young guys in the game as freshmen,” Musselman said. “They played a lot of minutes the last 10 minutes of the game. I think those two guys in particular are growing. Obviously Graham’s points, 8 for 10 to lead us in scoring today was really crucial. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I think we’re 60-3 when we’ve held teams to less than 70 points in the last four years. So that’s a secret formula.
“I thought defensively in the first half we were phenomenal. And then for whatever reason in the second half defensively we got away from what we were doing. We got away from the scouting report. Which is a great learning lesson. We started to go under screens, dribble hand-offs by Meechie Johnson. And he made us pay for it going 5 of 8 from three.”
Johnson’s 20 points and Gray’s career-high 20 points to go with 14 rebounds led South Carolina.
The win over the Gamecocks (NET No. 283) counts as a Quad-4 result. Based on the current NCAA NET rankings, Arkansas (NET No. 27) is 1-5 in Q1 games that factor into its postseason resume (win over San Diego State in a neutral-site game, and losses to Baylor on the road, Missouri on the road, Alabama at home, Auburn on the road, and Creighton at a neutral site). The Hogs are 3-1 in Q2 games (home wins over Texas A&M and Missouri, a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, and a road loss to Vanderbilt), and they are 12-1 in Q3/4 games.
Coming into Saturday college basketball games, Arkansas was projected as one of the last two teams to receive a bye in the NCAAT as an 11-seed by ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi. The win at South Carolina will not advance the Hogs’ projections, but a loss would have severely damaged them.
Arkansas improved to 23-15 all-time against South Carolina as the Razorbacks have won three consecutive games (and 8 of the last 11) in the series with back-to-back wins in Columbia, S.C., going back to ’20-21.
Musselman improved to 3-1 as Head Hog coaching against South Carolina. He’s 89-35 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 41-27 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.
Next up for the Hoop Hogs is another SEC road game against Kentucky on Tuesday.
Musselman started the combination of Council, Black, Davis, Makhel Mitchell, and Makhi Mitchell for the second consecutive game.
Arkansas trailed 10-9 when Black sparked a 14-2 run with a nifty stop-and-go driving lefty shot off the window as he was fouled for the and-1 conversion. Black would hit another tough-angle shot off the glass going right in the Hogs’ spurt, while Davis hit his first triple and Graham scored inside twice en route to a 23-12 Hogs lead.
USC would use a 6-0 run to pull within 23-18 as the teams would effectively trade scores from there before Davis hit a left-corner three-point shot to extend the Hogs to a 36-27 halftime lead.
Graham led the Hogs with 12 first-half points.
Arkansas shot 15-of-26 from the field (57.7%) in the first 20 minutes, including 2-of-5 from 3 (40%), and 4-of-5 at the free throw line (80%). Defensively, the Hogs picked up where they left off in their three previous outings by holding the Gamecocks to 10-of-20 field goal shooting (33.3%), including 2-of-8 from 3 (25%). USC hit 5-of-8 free throws (62.5%).
The Hogs dominated first-half bench scoring (16-0) as both teams had 16 rebounds. Arkansas was minus-1 in turnovers (6-5).