By Kevin McPherson
FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas Razorbacks needed a pick-me-up heading into the postseason, but instead they shot 2-of-20 on layups (10.0%) and 22-of-34 at the free throw line (64.7%) while suffering a third consecutive loss as shorthanded No. 23 Kentucky split the home-and-away season series against the Hogs with a convincing 88-79 road win on Saturday at Bud Walton Arena.
Arkansas (19-12, 8-10 for 10th place in the SEC, NET No. 16) finished league play with a losing record for the first time since 2019-20 (that UA team went 7-11 in the SEC), and the Razorbacks once again failed to notch their fourth consecutive 20-win season under fourth-year head coach Eric Musselman. Arkansas finished the season 13-3 at home while having its 3-game winning streak against Kentucky snapped. The Hogs won their previous matchup against the Wildcats, 88-73, on Feb. 7 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. They slipped to 14-34 in the all-time series.
Junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis made his second three-pointer to pull the Hogs within 42-39 in the second minute of the second half, but on the ensuing defensive possession Davis picked up a common foul and then was assessed a Class A technical foul, resulting in his ejection with four free throws awarded to Kentucky at the 18:15 mark.
Wildcats senior transfer guard Antonio Reeves converted all four freebies before scoring a field goal for what turned out to be a 6-point possession for the ‘Cats and a 48-39 lead. Reeves — he went off for a season-high 37 points — would hit a triple after an Arkansas made free throw to extend the ‘Cats to a 51-40 lead early in the second half. The Hogs would close within a two-possession deficit only twice the rest of the way — 55-50 and 63-57 — but each time the Wildcats would answer to expand their leads.
Arkansas’ defense has been in a backslide since the second half at Alabama, and that carried over on Saturday against Kentucky as the ‘Cats shot 29-of-54 from the field (53.7%), including 4-of-14 from 3 (28.6%). The Wildcats made 26-of-33 from the free throw line (78.8%).
The Hogs shot 25-of-70 overall from the field (35.7%), including 7-of-22 from 3 (31.8%).
Kentucky owned points-in-the-paint (36-26), overall rebounding (41-35), and second-chance-points (17-9). Arkansas won turnovers (15-6), points-off-turnovers (15-7), fastbreak points (13-6), offensive rebounds (17-10), and bench scoring (30-15).
“I think that our philosophy, especially with this roster, has been to try to draw free throws attempted and to try to score points in the paint,” Musselman said. “Obviously today 2 for 20 around the rim, you’re not going to win a lot of games. I can’t remember a game where I’ve had a team only have six turnovers and not win the game. So certainly the free throws have been a huge concern in tight games, in big games. We’ll continue to try to work on it in pressure situations, but that’s been a big concern for sure.”
Musselman declined to go into detail regarding Davis’ ejection.
“I’m not going to talk at all about the referees, because that’s not what we do,” Musselman said. “So that part of the question I’ll leave alone. But certainly Devo is a guy that from a leadership standpoint, from being a veteran, we’re a better team with him with us and not in the locker room, so we certainly missed him.
“He’s been a defensive stopper for us all season long.”
Freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., led Arkansas with 25 points (10-of-23 field goals, including 3-of-8 from 3, and 2-of-4 free throws), a career-high 6 assists, a career-high 4 steals, 3 rebounds, 1 block, and 3 turnovers in 35 minutes. Smith has scored 20-plus points in 3 of the team’s last 4 games.
Junior guard Ricky Council IV had 16 points (3-of-11 field goals, including 0-of-2 from 3, and 10-of-12 free throws), 4 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 turnover in 34 minutes. Freshman guard Anthony Black had 14 points (3-of-10 field goals, including 1-of-3 from 3, and 7-of-12 free throws), a team-high 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal 1 block, and 1 turnover in 34 minutes. Freshman 3/4-combo forward Jordan Walsh had 10 points (4-of-12 field goals, including 1-of-6 from 3, and 1-of-3 free throws), 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block in 31 minutes. Davis finished with 8 points (3-of-5 field goals, including 2-of-3 from 3) and 2 rebounds in 20 minutes.
The Hogs’ frontline foursome of the Mitchell twins (Makhi and Makhel), Jalen Graham, and Kamani Johnson combined for 6 points (2-of-9 field goals and 2-of-3 free throws), 9 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, zero blocks, and 1 turnover.
Arkansas still has a respectable Quad-1 and Quad-2 combined resume — 3-9 record in Q1 games plus a 4-2 mark in Q2 games — with only one Q3 loss (against LSU in the SEC opener in December), but the Hoop Hogs could potentially land on the NCAA Tournament at-large bid Bubble if they were to suffer a defeat in their first game of the SEC Tournament next week in Nashville, Tenn. Arkansas was averaging a 9-seed projection for the fast-approaching NCAAT prior to Saturday’s loss to Kentucky.
As for the SEC pecking order and seeding for the league’s postseason tournament, Arkansas entered Saturday games in a three-way tie for 8th place in the league standings. By virtue of their loss against the ‘Cats and Florida’s win over LSU, the Hogs will be the SECT 10-seed and will face 7-seed Auburn (20-11, 10-8 SEC) in a second-round game on Thursday, March 9. The host Tigers defeated the visiting Hogs, 72-59, in early January in the teams’ only meeting this season.
Playing without injured star freshman guard Cason Wallace, Kentucky (21-10, 12-6 SEC, NET No. 22) won for the 5th time in its last 7 contests. The Wildcats are a lock for an NCAAT at-large bid. Reeves made 12-of-17 field goals, including 2-of-4 from 3, and 11-of-11 free throws for his 37 points in 40 minutes. Forward Justin Toppin had 21 points (6-of-9 field goals, including 2-of-3 from 3, and 7-of-8 free throws) to go with 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, and 4 turnovers in 38 minutes. Reigning National and SEC player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe had 12 points and 13 rebounds in 26 minutes before fouling out.
As stated above, the loss against the Wildcats (NET No. 22) counts as a Quad-1 result. Based on the current NCAA NET rankings, Arkansas (NET No. 16) is now 3-9 in Q1 games that factor into its postseason resume (a road win against Kentucky, a home win against Texas A&M, and a win over San Diego State in a neutral-site game, and two losses to Alabama in home-and-away play as well as losses to Kentucky at home, Tennessee on the road, Texas A&M on the road, Baylor on the road, Missouri on the road, Auburn on the road, and Creighton at a neutral site). The Hogs are 4-2 in Q2 games (home wins over Florida, Missouri, and Bradley, a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home loss to Mississippi State, and a road loss to Vanderbilt), and they are 12-1 in Q3/4 games.
Musselman fell to 3-2 coaching against Kentucky as Head Hog and 92-40 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 44-32 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 a Thursday, March 9, matchup in the aforementioned SECT at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
Musselman started the combination of Smith, Black, Davis, Makhi Mitchell, and Makhel Mitchell.
Smith hit a left-corner three-pointer for the first points of the game, but Kentucky would string together mini runs — 6-0, 5-0, and 4-0 — in building a 25-18 lead.
Council’s 8 consecutive points and Smith’s back-to-back buckets helped the Hogs close withing a two-point deficit multiple times before Kentucky carried a 40-36 lead into the halftime break.
Arkansas shot 14-of-34 from the field (41.2%) in the opening half, including 2-of-8 from 3 (25%), and 6-of-9 free throws (66.7%). Kentucky made 15-of-29 field goals (51.7%), including 1-of-6 from 3 (16.7%), and 9-of-9 free throws (100%).
Kentucky owned the glass (20-15) and second-chance-points (11-2), while Arkansas won the turnover battle (6-3) and points-off-turnovers (9-0).
Smith led the Hogs with 9 points, 4 assists, and 2 steals in the first half. Council had 8 points.