Fouls Frustrate Eric Musselman as Hogs Blow Another Lead + Other Insights from Missouri Loss

Eric Musselman, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Missouri
photo credit: Nick Wenger

With the game on the line, Arkansas basketball found itself without six of its top players in the closing seconds Wednesday night and came up short to drop to 1-5 in SEC play.

The Razorbacks went in knowing they’d be without Nick Smith Jr. and Trevon Brazile because of injuries, but four other players ended up fouling out of their 79-76 loss at Missouri.

Head coach Eric Musselman brought up that statistic — as well as the Tigers attempting 40 free throws — unprompted in his response to the first question of his postgame Zoom interview with reporters.

“I just have never coached in a game where four players fouled out, and the opposition shoots 40 free throws,” Musselman said. “That’s 36 free throws, 36 free throws and 40 (the last three games). We haven’t caught any breaks. Every team’s got to try to create the breaks for themselves.

“We didn’t walk into the building tonight thinking that we’d have four players four out, but that’s what happened.”

It was the most free throws attempted by an SEC team in regulation of a regular-season conference matchup since Arkansas took 43 in a win over Alabama two years ago. However, as Musselman mentioned, the Razorbacks have been knocking on the door of that the last two games, as Alabama and Vanderbilt each attempted 36.

Several of the fouls called against Arkansas in Wednesday’s game — which featured 56 between the two teams — could likely be classified as “questionable.” There were several times Musselman and his players could not believe they drew a whistle.

Asked specifically for his thoughts on how the game was called, Musselman once again chose not to outright critique the officials in order to avoid a fine from the SEC.

“You know I can’t talk about the officials,” Musselman said. “I mean, we send stuff in and…you know, that’s… We’re kind of tired talking about it. I give Missouri credit. They beat us.”

The impact of those fouls was felt early, as Jordan Walsh picked up his second with 12:13 remaining in the half and Ricky Council IV was whistled for his second at the 9:23 mark. That limited them to only 7 and 11 first-half minutes, respectively.

Council is the SEC’s second-leading scorer, but Walsh’s foul trouble might have been more critical against Missouri because of how well he played when he was on the floor. He was in the middle of the sequence that put Arkansas up by 10, as he buried a 3-pointer, knocked the ball loose to force a turnover on the other end and then drove to the basket, came to a jump-stop and made another tough bucket to give him 12 points.

That forced Missouri head coach Dennis Gates to call a timeout. However, on the very next possession — just 15 seconds later — Walsh picked up his fifth foul. Arkansas outscored the Tigers by 13 in his 13 minutes and 2 seconds of action, but in the other 26 minutes and 58 seconds, Missouri outpaced the Razorbacks by 16.

“Based on his productivity tonight he would have played a lot more, but he played 13 minutes and fouled out,” Musselman said. “We’re trying to continue to build his confidence, continue to tell him to take open shots. Him fouling out tonight was extremely crucial. We were plus-13 when he was in the game for his 13 minutes.”

Making matters worse, Makhi Mitchell, Davonte Davis and Kamani Johnson each fouled out in a 32-second span with about a minute left. Each of those fifth fouls were called with the score tied at 71-71, so none were intentional in an effort to extend the game.

Mitchell’s final foul gave Missouri a three-point play opportunity, but replays seemed to show no contact on DeAndre Gholston as he knocked down the fadeaway jumper. The fifth foul on Davis came on the offensive end when he drove to the basket with a chance to give Arkansas the lead.

He was whistled for a charge, but because it was inside the final two minutes, the officials were able to look at the replay. It seemed as though at least one of D’Moi Hodge’s feet were in the restricted area, which would have made it a blocking foul on Missouri, but the call stood — taking Davis out of the game and giving Missouri the ball via a turnover.

When Johnson fouled out with 29 seconds remaining, Arkansas was left with a five-man lineup consisting of Anthony Black, Council and three lightly used players — Joseph Pinion, Jalen Graham and Derrian Ford.

After the Tigers took a two-point lead, the Razorbacks had a chance to answer, but Graham turned it over on the block. That was their last opportunity to tie the game until a desperation heave at the buzzer. Even on that play, Black managed to get Gholston off his feet with a pump fake and he told reporters he was trying to get fouled on the play, but nothing was called.

“I’m not going to comment on the officials,” Musselman said about the final play. “Again, it’s our responsibility to send clips in that we think are worthy of doing. Look, Missouri beat us and that’s what happened tonight.”

One clip the SEC likely won’t get to look at is this up-close view of the heave, which cuts away to a zoomed-out angle just as Gholston is coming down and Black is going up for the shot.

Arkansas is now one of three Division I teams — out of 363 — with three games in which its opponent has attempted at least 36 free throws, but Memphis and Morgan State didn’t do it in three consecutive games like the Razorbacks.

With 30 fouls called against it Saturday at Vanderbilt and 33 at Missouri, Arkansas joins St. Peter’s as the only Division I teams to commit 30-plus fouls in back-to-back games this season.

“We’ve got to figure out how to defend without fouling,” Black said. “That’s basically it. … Just got to defend without fouling, especially down the stretch when they’re in the bonus. We’ve just got to be solid.”

Musselman said he hasn’t changed his defensive schemes from the past three years and struggled to come up with an answer when asked how his team can cut down the fouling without taking away its aggressiveness.

“We’re not taking it away,” Musselman said. “I mean, we want our team to play hard. I’ve just, I’ve never coached a team that had for foul outs before. … I feel like I’ve been around a lot, coached a lot. I’ve never experienced that in all the years that I’ve been coaching.”

Another Blown Lead

As impactful as those fouls and free throws were, Arkansas was still in great position to snap its losing streak Wednesday night.

Thanks to a Davonte Davis 3-pointer and a couple of free throws by Ricky Council IV, the Razorbacks maintained that aforementioned 10-point lead as the click ticked under 5 minutes remaining.

However, Missouri responded with a 10-0 run to tie it up with 2:28 left and ended up outscoring Arkansas 22-9 over the final five minutes.

“We got up by getting stops,” Anthony Black said. “On offense, I think we were playing with a lot of confidence. It was just getting stops and being smart with the ball. Down the stretch, we fouled a lot. We gave up a couple big 3s — momentum shifters — and we turned the ball over.”

All but seven of the Tigers’ points over that stretch came at the free throw line. On the other end of the floor, Arkansas missed five straight shots and turned it over four times.

“A lot of that is on me,” Black said. “As the point guard and the game manager with a few minutes (left) and we’re up 10, we’re supposed to win the game. I take the responsibility for what happened down the stretch.”

It’s the second straight game Arkansas has lost despite having a double-digit lead in the second half, as it was also up 10 with about 17 minutes left.

The Razorbacks also had No. 4 Alabama on the ropes, pulling within 65-63 before the Crimson Tide called a timeout, immediately knocked down three straight 3s and pulled away for a 15-point victory.

“It’s a team that just has not figured out how to win in crunch time, so that’s our coaching staff’s job to continue to talk and break down late-game situations,” Musselman said. “I thought this was an improvement, but obviously the way we played the last six games is not the way that it’s been for the last four years, so we’ve got to continue to try to figure this out.”

Turnovers Costly for Arkansas Basketball

The Razorbacks actually shot the ball well in the first half, something they’ve struggled to do in SEC play, but their production was severely hindered by 14 turnovers.

The result was Missouri taking 13 more shots in the first half than Arkansas, which is why the Razorbacks’ lead was just 35-34 despite shooting 58.8% compared to the Tigers’ 36.7%.

Had the Razorbacks cut those turnovers in half and shot the ball at a similar rate on the seven extra possessions, they would have scored about 9 more points. That would have given them a 10-point halftime lead — and that’s without factoring in Missouri scoring 18 points off those 14 turnovers.

“We talked about it at halftime, and we were just more careful with the ball,” Anthony Black said. “We tried to just turn it down a little bit in the second half.”

Davonte Davis and Black — the two primary ball handlers — had 6 and 5 turnovers, respectively, while Black had 3.

As a team, Arkansas finished with 21 turnovers, which Musselman described as “way too many,” but only seven of those game in the second half.

“Just meeting the ball, being a little bit stronger with the basketball,” Musselman said of the second-half improvements. “I thought in the first half, we were just way too careless with the ball. Didn’t jump-stop enough when we did get a head of steam, had some charges.”

Up Next for the Razorbacks

After playing four of their first six SEC games on the road, including the last two, the Razorbacks return to Bud Walton Arena on Saturday for a showdown with Ole Miss.

It will be a battle for last place in the conference because both teams are 1-5 in SEC play, which is tied with LSU and Mississippi State at the bottom of the standings. The loser will have at least a share of last place, as the Tigers host Tennessee and the Bulldogs host Florida.

Unlike Arkansas, the Rebels will enter the matchup on a high note — and with an extra day of rest — as they beat South Carolina 70-58 on the road Tuesday night. That snapped a six-game skid that started with a one-point loss to North Alabama.

Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits

  • With the loss, Arkansas basketball saw its five-game winning streak in the series snapped. The Razorbacks are now 5-8 all-time at Mizzou Arena, which opened in 2004-05.
  • Despite an incorrect stat shown on the SEC Network broadcast, this is the third time Arkansas has started conference play 1-5 since joining the league. The first time was Stan Heath’s first season in 2002-03 and the other was under John Pelphrey, when the Razorbacks actually started 1-12.
  • For the third straight game, Eric Musselman used a different starting lineup. Kamani Johnson got the nod for just the second time this season, replacing Makhel Mitchell in the starting five. Mitchell ended up not playing despite all of the foul trouble, a move Musselman said was a “personnel decision” because of Missouri’s use of four-guard lineups.
  • Free throw shooting has been a major issue for the Razorbacks during their slow start to SEC play, but they got it going against Missouri, making 23 of 26 attempts (88.9%). That’s their highest percentage of the season.

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