FAYETTEVILLE — A chippy game between Arkansas and Kentucky turned on the ejection of Davonte Davis early in the second half Saturday afternoon.
It was still a three-point game when the junior guard picked up two technical fouls, resulting in a six-point possession that propelled the Wildcats to an 88-79 win over the Razorbacks in the regular-season finale at Bud Walton Arena.
The play in question happened at the 18:15 mark and started when Davis was whistled for a foul trying to fight through a screen by Oscar Tshiebwe. It appeared to be an offensive foul on the Kentucky big man, but when Davis realized it wasn’t, he reacted by demonstratively punching the air in frustration and the official immediately gave him a technical.
Making matters worse, Davis received a second technical foul and was ejected during the stoppage of play. It’s unclear exactly what it was for, but presumably because he continued to complain about the call.
Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman declined to reveal the explanation he got from the officials, but did touch on how big of a blow it was to his team that they didn’t have Davis for much of second half.
“I’m not going to talk at all about the referees, because that’s not what we do, so that part of the question I’ll leave alone,” Musselman said. “But certainly Devo is a guy that from a leadership standpoint, from being a veteran, we’re a better team with us and not in the locker room, so we certainly missed him. He’s been a defensive stopper for us all season long.”
It was a three-point game when the situation unfolded, with Kentucky leading 42-39, but Antonio Reeves made all four free technical free throws and also knocked down a jumper, giving the Wildcats six points in a span of nine seconds.
The Razorbacks managed to pull within five about midway through the half, but could never get closer than that and trailed by as many as 14 en route to their third straight loss.
“Any good player that goes out for a team, it’s gonna take a toll on your team,” teammate Nick Smith Jr. said. “But after that it was, we couldn’t cut the lead. We did cut the lead, but we couldn’t get on top to lead.”
The chippy nature of the game was evident almost from the jump. Less than four minutes into the game, Tshiebwe and Makhel Mitchell had to be separated after a double foul. The replay seemed to show Mitchell taking an elbow to the face. It seemed like a play that’d warrant a Flagrant 2 and automatic ejection for Tshiebwe, which CBS rules expert Gene Steratore agreed with on the telecast.
Instead, Tshiebwe and Anthony Black, who was involved in the ensuing scuffle, were assessed with a double technical. Tshiebwe also received a Flagrant 1 when he hit Kamani Johnson across the face late in the half. However, because it wasn’t a technical, the big man was not ejected — a Flagrant 1 counts toward the personal foul count, but not toward an ejection like a technical foul.
Less than two minutes after Davis’ ejection, Kentucky’s Lance Ware received a technical foul, but it wasn’t clear for what.
More Struggles vs. Physicality
As much as some Arkansas basketball fans may want to complain about the officiating, it’s impossible to ignore two ugly statistics that cost the Razorbacks even more.
They went 22 of 34 (64.7%) at the free throw line and, perhaps even more damning, made only 2 of 20 layups, according to the official UA stat broadcast.
Struggles at the charity stripe have become common for Arkansas, as it has shot under 70% in 15 of its last 19 games and is shooting just 62.6% over the last four games.
Not finishing at the rim, though, has not been as big of an issue this season. Arkansas did go 4 of 9 at Tennessee in its last game, but that was a bit more expected than the 2-of-20 showing against Kentucky.
“I think, No. 1, Tennessee is as physical (a team) as you’re going to play against,” Musselman said. “Today, we have not shot that poorly around the rim. We didn’t shoot great around the rim against Tennessee, which is to be expected because they’re long and physical. … Maybe experience is bothering us a little bit, as well.”
The Razorbacks did have nine dunks, but had twice as many point-blank misses.
“A lot of rushed shots,” Nick Smith Jr. said. “We’ve missed a lot of easy ones. We’ve just got to make the simple play, get the basket.”
Musselman’s frustrations with how Arkansas handled the physicality of Kentucky extended beyond the box score, as well.
“I can’t remember a team that we’ve had that did not get to loose balls (like) in that first half,” Musselman said. “At one point, there were 10 and eight of them they beat us to. That takes physicality to run through the ball on loose balls.”
No Answer for Antonio Reeves
Sahvir Wheeler had surgery earlier this week and has been sidelined for the past month. Cason Wallace suffered an ankle injury Wednesday that caused him to miss Saturday’s game.
Down its two primary point guards, Kentucky turned to Antonio Reeves and all the senior did was turn in the best game of his career — including his three years at Illinois State.
“We knew when Wallace wasn’t going to play that he was going to be the guy,” Musselman said. “I thought they did a really good job of setting screens for him. Their dribble-handoff game really bothered us in the first half. And they were physical setting the screens, much like Tennessee was. … I thought he came off with great speed off the dribble-handoffs.”
He poured in a career-high 37 points, surpassing the 34 he had for the Redbirds against Valparaiso last February, and was incredibly efficient in doing so. He was 12 of 17 from the floor, including 2 of 4 from beyond the arc, and a perfect 11 of 11 from the free throw line.
It was the most points by a single player against the Razorbacks since Jodie Meeks’ infamous 45-point effort for Kentucky in 2009 and the most ever against an Eric Musselman-coached college team.
Four different players had scored 33 points against Nevada during his tenure in Reno, while three had reached 30 points against Arkansas since he arrived in Fayetteville.
“That’s the single best performance that I’ve seen a player have against one of the teams that we’ve coached outside of the NBA obviously, in Reeves’ performance today,” Musselman said. “I mean, he was phenomenal. … I thought he was fantastic.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
The regular season is now over and the Razorbacks are guaranteed only two more games — at least one in the SEC Tournament and at least one in the postseason, presumably the NCAA Tournament.
With the loss to Kentucky, Arkansas finishes conference play with an 8-10 record. That is tied with Mississippi State for ninth place in the league, but the Razorbacks will be the 10 seed in Nashville, Tenn., because the Bulldogs own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Arkansas will face 7 seed Auburn at 6 p.m. CT Thursday in its first game at the SEC Tournament. The winner gets 2 seed Texas A&M at the same time Friday.
“Losing three in a row, that takes a toll on confidence for our team,” Nick Smith Jr. said. “But as a leader, I’ve got to come out ready to practice and tell the guys the season’s not over. We’ve just got to come ready to play (Thursday).”
The Razorbacks will learn their NCAA Tournament fate on Selection Sunday, following the SEC Tournament. The selection show will be televised by CBS beginning at 5 p.m. CT on March 12.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- The Razorbacks committed only six turnovers, their second-best mark of the season. They had only five in their win over Georgia three games earlier.
- Ricky Council IV is closing in on 1,000 points in his collegiate career. With 16 against Kentucky, he is now just two points shy of the milestone. He has now scored 513 points this year, becoming just the fifth player to score 500-plus in his first season with Arkansas basketball, according to HogStats. The players ahead of Council are Martin Terry (633), Scotty Thurman (540), Moses Moody (539) and Dusty Hannahs (529).
- For the eighth time this season, Arkansas started the Mitchell twins together. The move worked wonders at Rupp Arena last month, but was much less effective this time around. Makhi and Makhel Mitchell combined for just 2 points on 1 of 7 shooting, 6 rebounds, 1 assist and no blocks in 33 minutes.
- After being held to only 7 points and 7 rebounds in the first Arkansas vs Kentucky matchup, Oscar Tshiebwe managed to notch a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds in 26 minutes Saturday. He was held scoreless and limited to only four rebounds in the second half, though. “We tried to be a little more physical,” Musselman said. “We got in some foul trouble in the first half with him. He still played a good game. You look at his numbers, 12 and 13 is still a really good game and his 4 offensive rebounds. He’s a great rebounder and plays really hard. I thought he really impacted the game in the first half.”
- Although three others are listed as seniors on the roster, Kamani Johnson is the only one who has no remaining eligibility, so he was the lone player honored during Senior Day festivities prior to the game. Jalen Graham and the Mitchell twins — Makhi and Makhel — are technically seniors, but could play one more year thanks to the eligibility relief granted by the NCAA in response to the pandemic.
- Five-star 2023 signee Baye Fall, a big man from Senegal who now plays at Accelerated Prep in Denver, was in attendance and recognized during a timeout. He was joined by 2024 five-star target David Castillo, a guard out of Bartlesville, Okla.
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