By Kevin McPherson
Arkansas remains in search of its first road win of the season after No. 17 Baylor survived the unranked Razorbacks, 67-64, on Saturday in Waco, Texas, in the teams’ last non-conference game of the regular season in what was the final Big 12 / SEC Challenge ever.
Freshman wing Joseph Pinion’s potential game-tying three-point attempt from the right corner hit the side of the backboard and ricocheted away from the rim as time expired, leaving Arkansas empty-handed on the road once again as the Razorbacks were once again crushed at the free throw line (the Bears were 21-of-24 for 87.5% compared to the Hogs’ 6-of-11 for 54.5%). Baylor had attempted only two more free throw than the Hogs in the first half, but shot 11 more in the second half to eerily mirror themes in Arkansas losses to Alabama at home, Vanderbilt on the road, and Missouri on the road earlier this month.
It was a see-saw game most of the way with Baylor using a 10-0 run to go up by six points, 59-53, with just over two minutes to play, but the Hogs used their own 9-4 spurt to pull within 63-62 capped by junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis’ layup and free throw with 18.9 seconds remaining.
Baylor would make 4-of-4 free throws in the final 10.7 seconds, and though the Hogs pulled within another one-point deficit (65-64) on a Davis driving layup with 4.8 left, they were unable to convert down by three points (67-64) when Davis missed the front-end of his 1-and-1 attempt with 2.3 seconds remaining as Arkansas intentionally tipped the ball out in the direction of Pinion who rotated to the right corner to receive the loose ball but missed his triple attempt at the final horn.
“We had three options for a three,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said of the Hogs’ second-to-last possession that resulted in Davis’ drive in for a layup that cut the deficit to 64-63 with 4.8 seconds to play. “Devo found a seam in the defense, and we felt … We wanted the three, but if we didn’t have a clean look at a three, instead of just hoisting up the shot, which it played out time-wise like we thought it possibly could. Devo makes the first one and we miss the second and we execute that, maybe we walk out of here with a win.
“Again, I thought the clock management by the guys on the floor was really, really good. There was no panic. I mean, if you look at the stat sheet and you watched the game, the difference obviously was the free throws attempted. Everything else … I mean our first half defense against a team at home, you’re not going to hold Baylor to 8 of 33. I mean, we’ve played three games defensively where I thought we’ve been phenomenal.”
Generating an improbable final offensive possession off a team’s own missed free throw is a low-probability scenario that Arkansas works on in practice. Down three with 2 seconds left and stepping to the line is a two-fold approach: 1) make the first free throw to pull within two points and miss the second intentionally for a potential game-tying point-blank putback, or 2) if the free throw is missed on the front end of a 1-and-1, then attempt to tip the ball out beyond the three-point line toward a pre-determined location to a waiting shooter for a potential game-tying three-point shot.
“The free throw is exactly what we work on at the end of the summer,” Musselman said. “It’s call ‘Dagger’ … Joesph had a good look. Just sometimes a shot doesn’t go. It’s tough to ask a guy who sat for that long as well. But execution in a lot of different areas, I thought we were good. I thought the players did a really good job of clock management and gave ourselves an opportunity to potentially put the game into overtime.”
Even though it was a departure from the grind of league play, the stakes were high for the Hogs against the Bears on Saturday. Consider that Arkansas (14-7, 3-5 SEC) …
– Had its two-game winning streak snapped and has lost 6 of 9 games in January
– Has lost all five true road games this season (the Hogs are 4-6 in all games played outside of their home at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville)
– Failed to add a much-needed Quad-1 win to its postseason resume (the Hogs are now 1-5 in Q1 games)
– Failed to notch its second win of the season against a ranked team (the lone such victory came in overtime against then-No. 17 San Diego State in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii in late November, which also marks the Hogs’ lone Q1 victory)
– Failed to exact a measure of revenge against the Bears, who knocked off the Hogs in the teams’ last meeting in March 2021 to advance to the NCAA Tournament Final Four
– Finished with a losing 4-5 record all-time in the Big 12 / SEC Challenge as the Hogs’ were winless in five road games in the event
– Slipped to 1-1 on the season against the Big 12 (includes a 10-point win over unranked Oklahoma in early December)
– Wrapped up non-conference play with an 11-2 record, failing to match the best non-conference mark under head coach Eric Musselman (the ’19-20 Hogs went 12-1 in non-conference play)
Freshman star guard Keyonte George led Baylor with 24 points and backcourt mate LJ Cryer added 20 points as each shot 6-of-6 at the foul line to account for more than half of the Bears’ production on freebies. Wing and West Virignia transfer Jalen Bridges put in 10 points and 7 rebounds for Baylor.
Junior guard Ricky Council IV led Arkansas with 25 points (10-of-17 field goals, including 2-of-4 from 3, and 3-of-3 free throws) to go with 2 assists and 1 rebound in 39 minutes. Davis finished with 16 points (6-of-13 field goals, including 2-of-7 from 3, and 2-of-3 free throws) to go with a game-high-matching 4 assists, 2 rebounds, and 5 turnovers in 36 minutes. Junior forward Jalen Graham had 4 points (2-of-6 field goals and 0-of-4 free throws), 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 3 turnovers in 25 minutes off the bench. Freshman guard Anthony Black had 7 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, and 2 turnovers in 35 minutes. Big men Makhi Mitchell and Makhel Mitchell as well as combo forward Jordan Walsh each scored 4 points while combining for 12 rebounds, 4 blocks, 3 assists, and 2 turnovers.
Arkansas racked up 16 assists while shooting 27-of-53 from the field (50.9%), including 4-of-14 from 3 (28.6%), while limiting Baylor to 5 assists on 20-of-59 field goal shooting (33.9%), including 6-of-18 from 3 (33.3%).
Both teams collected 35 rebounds, but the Bears held a 15-10 edge in offensive rebounds that led to a 12-5 advantage in second-chance-points. Baylor was plus-5 in fastbreak points (10-5), and plus-7 in turnovers (15-8) for a plus-5 finish in points-off-turnovers (13-8). The Razorbacks dominated points-in-the-paint (34-22) and won bench scoring (8-5).
Baylor (16-5, 5-3 Big 12) picked up its sixth consecutive win after starting the month of January with back-to-back losses. The Bears are in a tie for second place in the Big 12.
Despite the loss, the Hogs lead the all-time series against Baylor, 96-49, although the Bears have won three in a row and three of the last four meetings after Arkansas’ move from the old Southwest Conference to the SEC for the ’91-92 season.
“The one thing that you always want from your basketball team is to play as hard as they possibly can,” Musselman said. “Anybody that was here walked away and saw a great basketball game. I feel for the locker room. They’re giving it all they have. I mean, this is a ranked team at home coming off beating Kansas. We went with a half-court trap that I thought we executed to perfection, especially in the first half. I think they were 1 of 14 against it.
“Makhel Mitchell was supposed to be out over a week and a half to two and a half weeks. He comes back and misses one game and suits up and gives us great minutes on a bad ankle. Anthony Black is extremely banged up. He continues to suit up and put forth an incredible effort … Ricky Council obviously with the minutes he’s played has been banged up. Devo’s been bothered by stuff … I’m just really impressed with the guy’s effort playing through stuff. We gave ourselves a chance to win against a really, really good (team).”
As mentioned above, the loss against Baylor (NET No. 14) counts as a Q1 result. Based on the current NCAA NET rankings, Arkansas (NET No. 26) is now 1-5 in Q1 games that factor into their 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 2-2 in Q2 games (home win over Mizzou and a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, and road losses to LSU and Vandy) and 11-0 in Q3/4 games.
Musselman fell to 0-2 as Head Hog coaching against Baylor and Bears head coach Scott Drew. He’s 87-35 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 48-8 record in non-conference games, a 39-27 mark against SEC teams, and a 6-2 record 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 a return to SEC action at home against Texas A&M on Tuesday.
Musselman started the combination of Council, Davis, Black, Jordan Walsh, and Makhi Mitchell.
The Hogs fell behind 19-8 out of the gates before Council scored 7 points in a 12-1 Arkansas run to pull even at 20-all. Following a 5-0 Baylor possession that included a 2-of-2 free throw trip on a Musselmnan technical foul to put the Bears ahead 25-20, the Razorbacks would close the half on a 13-2 run for a 33-27 advantage at the break.
Council led with 12 points in the first 20 minutes, Graham came off the bench to contribute 6 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 assists, and Davis chipped in 8 points and 2 assists.
Arkansas’ defense was stifling much like it was against LSU in a 60-40 home win on Tuesday as the Hogs limited the Bears to 8-of-33 field goals (24.2%) in the opneing half, including 3-of-12 from 3 (25%). The Hogs blocked 6 shots as they limited Baylor to 1-of-17 shooting down the strech of the first half. The Bears did make 8-of-9 at the free throw line (88.9%).
The Hogs shot 14-of-23 from the field (60.9%), including 2-of-6 from 3 (33.3%). Arkansas made only 3-of-7 at the foul line in the first 20 minutes (42.9%).
Arkansas was plus-7 on the glass (22-15) and plus-12 in points-in-the-paint (20-8), but it was minus-7 in turnovers (11-4) and minus-4 in points-off-turnovers (10-6).