Like it has so many times this season, Arkansas basketball crumbled down the stretch Wednesday night.
Having already let a 12-point lead completely evaporate, the Razorbacks were abysmal in the closing seconds of a 62-56 loss at Texas A&M — a game they desperately needed to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume.
Arkansas also blew double-digit leads at Vanderbilt and Missouri, plus nearly did it at South Carolina before barely hanging on and escaping with a win.
“We haven’t been very good closing on the road at all,” head coach Eric Musselman said. “We’ve lost a tremendous amount of close games, so closing has been an issue for this group.”
Even with the Aggies coming out hot in the second half, they only briefly led on a couple of occasions and held the lead for a grand total of 1 minute and 48 seconds until the final five minutes of the game.
A pair of free throws by Makhi Mitchell put the Razorbacks on top 53-51 with 5:54 remaining and that’s where things went south.
They managed to score only three points the rest of the game and those came on a three-point play by Anthony Black with 12 seconds left — at which point it was too late. Arkansas missed its other six shots and turned it over three times, allowing Texas A&M to take and extend the lead.
“We’re not very good right now of stopping the runs and stopping the bleeding,” Black said. “I take responsibility in some of that as the game manager. I’ve got to find a way to bring us together and stop the bleeding.”
Musselman, who was visibly frustrated in his postgame Zoom interview with reporters, said he was not happy with his team’s shot selection or passing late in the game. Throw in a pair of 50% statistics — Arkansas’ free throw shooting and Texas A&M’s 3-point shooting — and it was “not a recipe to win a game.”
Prior to Black’s bucket in the closing seconds, the Razorbacks’ last field goal was a layup by Mitchell with 7:07 remaining. Their next six shots, all of which were taken when the margin was still within one possession either way, were from beyond the arc and none of them connected.
“I don’t think we’re a three-point shooting team and we went 1 of 10 from three in the second half,” Musselman said. “Paint points are what we live on, free throws attempted are what we live on, so that was an issue.
“It’s frustrating. I thought we had a really good game plan. I thought we followed it perfectly in the first half. Game gets close and we’ve got to be able to counter when another team makes a run.”
Instead of picking up a third Quadrant 1 victory and continuing its climb in the NET rankings, in which it had oddly jumped up to No. 23 in the days following Saturday’s home loss to Mississippi State, Arkansas moves back under .500 in conference play.
Now sitting at 17-9 overall, the Razorbacks have slipped into a tie with Georgia for ninth place in the SEC at 6-7. That is just one game ahead of Mississippi State in the race to avoid a bottom-four seed and appearance on Wednesday of the SEC Tournament.
“Every game we have is hard,” Musselman said when asked about his confidence that this team can get back on track after back-to-back losses. “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.”
The Turning Point
As ugly as the final five minutes were for Arkansas, a case could be made that it was another five-minute stretch that won the game for Texas A&M.
The Razorbacks appeared to be firmly in control late in the first half, making their final nine shots and building a 12-point lead with the help of a 9-0 run. It looked like they’d take a 33-21 advantage into the locker room, especially when Nick Smith Jr. knocked the ball out of bounds, forcing the Aggies to in bound it with only 1.4 seconds on the block.
However, Hayden Hefner used a screen to get a wide-open look from the top of the key and buried the 3, making it a nine-point margin at the break instead.
“You never want to give up a three like that right before half,” Black said. “There’s a big difference between 12 and 9, so big shot for them. We just came out where we left off, just giving up 3s and just not defending well. So that kind of gave them a spark and we didn’t stop their run.”
Sure enough, that momentum carried over into the second half. Texas A&M came away with three points on each of its first four possessions after halftime, with three of them coming on shots from beyond the arc — usually with a hand in the player’s face — and the other being of the old-school variety.
Dexter Dennis made one of those 3s, but Wade Taylor IV is who really hurt the Razorbacks. After scoring only 2 points on 1 of 6 shooting in the first half, he scored 11 in the Aggies’ 14-4 run that gave them the lead less than four minutes into the half.
The sophomore guard finished with a game-high 18 points. That matched his point total from the first game against Arkansas, but he did it on a much more efficient 6-of-15 shooting (compared to 6 of 19) that including 3 of 5 from deep (compared to 2 of 7).
“His 3 for 5 from three really hurt us,” Musselman said. “They made six threes and he made three of them. So, his deep three-point shots I thought impacted the game tremendously.”
Devo’s Struggles Down the Stretch
For much of Wednesday night, it seemed like Davonte Davis was enjoying a classic bounce-back game after turning in his first subpar performance in a while his last time out.
His streak of nine straight games with at least 15 points came to an end Saturday against Mississippi State, when he shot 2 of 11 from the floor, but came out on fire against Texas A&M.
The junior guard had 11 points at halftime and was 3 of 4 from beyond the arc. Even midway through the second half, Davis was 4 of 6 from 3-point range. Much like the rest of the team, though, it all came crashing down in the final five minutes.
He took, and missed, four 3-pointers. He turned the ball over twice, including once when he threw the ball well into the stands with no teammate in the vicinity. He also badly missed three free throws, with one being the front end of a 1-and-1.
When asked to assess his overall performance, including his struggles down the stretch, Musselman declined to specifically comment on Davis and instead lumped his play in with the entire team.
“There’s no question that our entire team struggled the last five minutes of the game and most of the second half,” Musselman said.
Limited Minutes for Nick Smith Jr.
After playing 17 minutes in his return to the court against Mississippi State, there was an expectation that Nick Smith Jr. would get more playing time in his second game back.
Eric Musselman said on the pregame radio show, though, that his minutes would be dictated by the flow of the game. That turned out to be only 4 minutes — all in the first half.
The freshman phenom struggled in that limited action, throwing a bad pass and stepping out of bounds for a pair of turnovers and also having his lone shot blocked on a fast break layup.
After the game, Musselman didn’t really elaborate on the reasoning behind his lack of playing time, other than saying it wasn’t related to his knee injury and indicating it was a coach’s decision.
“We’re just trying to win a game and keep our season alive,” Musselman said. “We’re just going to keep trying to work everybody in.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
The Razorbacks are back in Bud Walton Arena this weekend, hosting a Florida team that just snapped a three-game skid — albeit at a great cost.
Star big man Colin Castleton suffered a broken hand in the Gators’ 79-64 win over Ole Miss and could miss the rest of the year. He definitely won’t play Saturday, which is a huge blow to Florida because he was averaging 16.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.0 blocks before Wednesday and playing some of his best basketball in recent weeks.
Tipoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. CT and the game will be televised on ESPN2. That gives it ample time to wrap up before first pitch between Arkansas and TCU at the College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas, which will be streamed on FloSports.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- As it has several times this season, foul trouble was a major storyline for Arkansas. Both of the Mitchell twins — Makhi and Makhel — picked up their second fouls within 12 minutes, forcing Kamani Johnson into action. Johnson also had two quick fouls and Jordan Walsh actually committed three in the first half before fouling out with 2:19 remaining. “I thought the Mitchell twins did a really good job of interior defense,” Musselman said. “Obviously the foul trouble hurt us in the first half with both of them, as well as Walsh fouling out again tonight.”
- Freshman point guard Anthony Black turned in another stat-stuffer performance, finishing with 9 points, 3 rebounds, 8 assists and 2 steals. The eight assists matched his career high, which he set against Ole Miss on Jan. 21. “Ball movement was not a problem at all,” Musselman said. “Anthony, I thought he played really well. His shot selection was good. He tried to get others involved. I thought he saw over the defense really well.”
- Texas A&M scored only four points in the first 10 minutes of the game and started 2 of 16 from the floor, but Arkansas managed to build only a seven-point lead during that opening stretch. The Aggies then scored 58 points the rest of the way — nearly an 80-point pace.
- Freshman Jordan Walsh was not in his usual No. 13 jersey on Wednesday. Instead, he was in a nameless No. 55 uniform. The ESPN2 broadcast never officially reported what happened, but speculated that it was somehow accidentally left behind in Fayetteville. In a tweet to BoAS, Walsh’s mom confirmed that was the case.
- Legendary Arkansas golfer Stacy Lewis and her husband, Texas A&M women’s golf coach Gerrod Chadwell, attended the game and sat courtside.
Arkansas vs Texas A&M Highlights
Arkansas vs Texas A&M Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs Texas A&M Box Score
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