Arkansas basketball fans have waited all season for a moment like what unfolded in the closing seconds of Thursday’s game in Nashville, Tenn.
Having squandered yet another double-digit lead and on the brink of a four-game losing streak entering the big dance, Nick Smith Jr. finally delivered a signature moment in the Razorbacks’ 76-73 win over Auburn in the second round of the SEC Tournament.
On the possession after the Tigers had taken their first lead since it was 2-0, fully erasing what had been a 15-point lead, the freshman phenom caught a pass on the right wing, drove toward the baseline, stopped and pulled up for a mid-range jumper over Allen Flanigan. It found the bottom of the next, flipping the score back in favor of the Razorbacks with just 16 seconds remaining.
“We believe in Nick, of course,” teammate Davonte Davis said. “We know Nick can make tough shots like that. He’s a scorer. We believe in him in situations like that.”
Prior to that shot, it seemed as though Arkansas would suffer the same fate as it had so many times this season, either blowing a double-digit lead or losing by one possession — or, in this case, both.
The Razorbacks lost four games this season in which they led by at least 10 points at some point and lost five games by 3 points or less. However, they were without Smith for all one of those games and he helped them avoid the collapse this time around.
“The biggest thing in basketball is when your play dies, who can go manufacture their own shot,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said. “Obviously for us in the past it’s been Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe, JD Notae, guys like that. We have missed Nick in that exact type of situation. We have lost a lot of close games.”
It was far from Smith’s best game this season, as he finished with only 14 points on 6 of 12 shooting, but he delivered when it mattered most. He led the team in second-half scoring and made 5 of his 9 shots, including 2 of 3 from beyond the arc.
“Early in the game Nick wasn’t really scoring like he usually does,” teammate Anthony Black said. “We were telling him to keep going, second half they’re going to drop. … We trust in him. He’s one of the best scorers in college. He made a good move and made a big shot.”
What he did on the other end of the court will probably be overshadowed by the shot, but shouldn’t be ignored. After Davonte Davis made a couple of free throws to push the lead to three with 12.6 seconds left, K.D. Johnson tried to push the pace and get a quick 2, but Smith got back and cut him off.
As soon as he realized his player had nowhere to go, Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl called a timeout with 3.5 seconds left. He drew up a play that got the Tigers a decent look at a game-tying 3 at the buzzer, but Smith closed out on Wendell Green Jr. and likely made an impact on the miss.
“On the last shot by Green, it was pretty open,” Davis said. “It was a good play actually, but luckily Nick closed out. We practiced on that. I think he did a pretty good job on closing out, contesting the shot, made it go short.”
Hogs Get Last Laugh
Ever since the Razorbacks knocked them off when they were ranked No. 1 last year, the Tigers haven’t been shy about their feelings toward Arkansas.
Leading up to last year’s SEC Tournament, Auburn guard Zep Jasper said he had “payback” on his mind when he realized there was a potential rematch with the Razorbacks in the semifinals.
“If we play against them, the intensity is going to be high, the energy is going to be flowing, because we feel like we got something to prove against them,” Jasper said. “We feel like we’re going to beat the crap out of them when we see them again because from that coaching staff, their players, their fans, we just didn’t tolerate the disrespect from their state.”
The Tigers never got that opportunity. The regular-season champs were upset by Texas A&M in their first game in the tournament.
Revenge for Auburn finally came earlier this season when Arkansas traveled to the plains and got smoked 72-59 on Jan. 7. That apparently wasn’t enough for the Tigers because Wendell Green — whom Davonte Davis swung over after his post-buzzer dunk last year — told reporters this week, “We don’t like Arkansas.”
There is no doubt that Auburn wanted to beat the Razorbacks again when the two NCAA Tournament-bound teams met in Nashville.
“Just their fans, you know, they probably hate me more than Bama fans, you know?” Green said. “Their fans (are) crazy, and then, just only playing them one time last year, that kind of sucked to me, because I didn’t get a chance to play them again. So, playing them this year, just one time so far, I was thinking about that the whole time. I couldn’t wait to play that game.”
Once again, though, things didn’t turn out the way Auburn hoped. Instead of celebrating another win, Anthony Black gave the Tigers a final wave goodbye.
Dominating the Boards
One of the Razorbacks’ major points of emphasis against Auburn was crashing the boards and they responded with a truly dominant rebounding performance.
Arkansas out-rebounded the Tigers 37-19 and grabbed half of its possible offensive rebounds (13 of 26), leading to 18 second-chance points.
“We felt rebounding, especially defensive rebounding, would be the key to the win,” Musselman said. “I thought out-rebounding a very, very good rebounding team in Auburn by 18, I thought our entire team did a great job.”
Musselman specifically praised Davonte Davis, a 6-foot-4 guard, for his efforts on the glass. He grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds, which also matched his career high that he had previously hit against UNC Greensboro and Alabama this year.
Making that performance even more impressive is the fact that Davis was tasked with guarding Wendell Green, which meant he was defending on the perimeter most of the night — yet nine of his rebounds were on the defensive end, the most ever by an Arkansas guard at the SEC Tournament, according to HogStats.
Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl singled out Anthony Black, the 6-foot-7 point guard who was tied with big man Makhi Mitchell for the second-most rebounds with six.
“(Give) him credit for crashing, but our guys didn’t do a good enough job of putting a body on him,” Pearl said. “I don’t recall us getting a foul checking him out. That wasn’t an issue. We should have been more physical keeping him off the boards.”
The plus-18 rebound margin for Arkansas was tied for Auburn’s worst mark in that category this season, as the Tigers were also minus-18 against Kentucky.
“I think physically they bothered us with their athleticism and their length,” Pearl said. “As a result, we got dominated on the boards, which made it really difficult for us to win the basketball game.”
The Razorbacks’ 18 second-chance points were a season high and the plus-12 margin in that statistic played a large role in their win.
“Second-chance points are big because we know in March a lot of games are going to come down to a couple points, the last two minutes,” Black said. “We just got to do the small stuff like that, just make plays like that, try to get any edge we can.”
Lineup Switch Pays Dividends
In an interesting move, Arkansas basketball changed its starting lineup to include four guards — Anthony Black, Davonte Davis, Nick Smith Jr. and Ricky Council IV — to go along with Kamani Johnson as the lone big man, and that may be a stretch for a guy who stands just 6-foot-7.
It was Johnson’s fourth start of the season and he finished with 4 points, 3 rebounds and 2 turnovers, which doesn’t exactly jump off the page, but his impact was felt beyond the box score.
“I thought Kamani gave us great physicality,” Musselman said. “Picked up a couple fouls. That was probably predicted that he was going to go in there and bang around. We didn’t freak out when he picked up the two. We kind of told him that’s what we wanted you to do, go in there and mix it up.”
To make room for Johnson, Makhi Mitchell came off the bench for just the second time this season. Whether or not that had anything to do with it remains to be seen, but he had a very good game while playing minutes similar to what he got as a starter.
In just under 24 minutes of playing time, Mitchell had 12 points on 5 of 7 shooting and six rebounds — a dramatic increase from his recent rough stretch. He had managed only 11 combined points and 11 combined rebounds over the previous four games.
The Razorbacks also got very good minutes out of freshman Jordan Walsh, who also came off the bench despite starting more games than not. He chipped in 11 points and 4 rebounds in 21 minutes.
“Makhi came in and did a great job,” Musselman said. “He’s only not started one game this year. I thought he came in and was fantastic. That’s what you want. Jordan Walsh started a lot of games for us. His minutes were incredible, to be honest with you.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
It will be a quick turnaround for the Razorbacks, who have less than 24 hours to prepare for their SEC Tournament quarterfinal matchup against Texas A&M.
The Aggies earned the No. 2 seed at the event with a 15-3 conference record and went 23-8 overall during the regular season. They split the home-and-home series with Arkansas, with each team winning on its home court.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- The win was Arkansas’ 20th of the season, meaning Eric Musselman has won at least 20 games in all eight of his collegiate seasons. It’s also the Razorbacks’ fourth straight 20-win season, their longest streak since doing it nine years in a row from 1987-88 to 1995-96.
- Needing only two to reach the 1,000-point milestone for his career, Ricky Council IV scored 7 points Arkansas on Thursday. It’s just the fourth time in 32 games that he’s failed to reach double figures. Thursday’s performance gives him 1,005 career points and 520 points this season, which is fifth-most by a newcomer in UA history, according to HogStats, trailing only Martin Terry (633), Scotty Thurman (540), Moses Moody (539) and Dusty Hannahs (529).
- Even though he had five turnovers, Anthony Black had yet another all-around game with 19 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 blocks. It’s the second time he’s hit those marks in a game this year. Prior to him, the only UA freshmen to accomplish that feat since 1996-97 were Davonte Davis and Courtney Fortson, according to HogStats.
- When it comes to in-state products, Little Rock native Allen Flanigan receives most of the attention and he dropped 15 points Thursday, but it was West Memphis native Chris Moore who sparked the Tigers’ comeback from down 15 with his energy off the bench. “He’s a warrior,” teammate K.D. Johnson said. “It don’t matter if he playing or he not playing, he’s going to have a way to affect the game. He was the main reason we started our energy up. He got on us pretty hard as a team without any coaches doing it. He kind of picked us up in a big way.”
- The Tigers managed to hang around thanks to a 20-point effort by K.D. Johnson. “K.D. is one of our most athletic players from the standpoint of speed, quickness, power — even though he’s undersized,” Pearl said. “His athleticism showed up for Auburn in a big way out there on the floor.”
Arkansas vs Auburn Highlights
Arkansas vs Auburn Postgame Interviews
Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman, as well as Davonte Davis and Anthony Black, met with reporters afterward:
Arkansas vs Auburn Box Score
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