GREENVILLE, S.C. — A season played almost entirely on the edge of a knife ended Sunday for Arkansas with the deepest cut of all. The Razorbacks inserted their own dagger. North Carolina simply twisted it.
Arkansas had a spot in the Sweet 16 on its fingertips. Mike Anderson’s team led, coming out of the final media timeout, by 3 points. It grew to 5 before a 12-0 Tar Heels run over the final 2 minutes, 56 seconds, made it completely meaningless. The top seed in the NCAA Tournament looked like it for three minutes, winning 72-65.
The shock was palpable. Arkansas spent the entire second half up to that point outplaying North Carolina. This after the first 15 minutes of the game could have been better. And the final three certainly left something to be desired. But the game played out largely the way the season did.
The end of a wild ride
Less “peaks and valleys” and “ebbs and flows.” More “What. The. Hecks?” and “No ways!” Because in moments Moses Kingsley was the Preseason SEC Player of the Year. In moments, Jaylen Barford was the top-rated junior college recruit in the country. Dusty Hannahs was the best shooter. Daryl Macon had the chilly veins.
Sustaining it wasn’t always an issue. Things going sideways was the issue. Forgetting what was going on was the issue. Relying on talent was the issue. Because when things went funky for Arkansas this season, they went badly funky.
Whether it’s mental panic or attitude or just plain getting beat, Arkansas’ final three minutes were bad. The Razorbacks missed their final four field goal attempts and didn’t score in the last 3:28. North Carolina made three of its final four. Balls were bouncing off legs, guys were reaching. It was tough to swallow for fans in red and white.
No one except those in Carolina blue thought the officiating in the final few minutes was of any high quality. Poor play exacerbated frustration in that regard. But that’s chicken or egg. Anderson knew it after the game.
“I thought we had some bad decision-making going down the stretch. And you can credit that to their defense, but you can also credit it to our guys just making the wrong decision,” he said.
Now comes the fun part
Arguably the second-most talented team in the SEC, the Razorbacks were for all of the first semester of school able to just straightmup beat teams by being better. SEC play started and that didn’t go quite as well for a while. Until it did. Then, it dipped again — horribly — and finally, to end the regular season, all of the players and Anderson and even the staffers all said the same thing.
That thing: Arkansas grew up. It took time, and a stack of losses that threatened its NCAA Tournament future, but once Anderson’s influence became the focus of the players, the Razorbacks were one of the best teams in the country down the stretch.
Simply put, it didn’t happen Sunday. Nothing more. Nothing less. Unless you have some sort of mighty faith in the basketball gods. North Carolina coach Roy Williams appeared to. He knew his team probably deserved Arkansas’ fate.
“We feel very fortunate. I even told Mike (Anderson) that we were awfully lucky — I think we were,” Williams said. “I thought the moon and the stars weren’t aligned properly.”
Lucky is better than good. Arkansas found that much out Sunday.
Part of growing up is handling adversity. Not just handling it, but how it’s handled. That’s the next step for the Razorbacks, a team who will be without Kingsley, Hannahs and Manny Watkins next season. They’re a team who could see — and likely will see — exits elsewhere on the roster, too, not because of graduation. Those happen every season.
Sunday can either be the final time Arkansas deals with schizophrenic tendencies or the lesson can go ignored instead of becoming a building block for 2017-18.
Bet on the former.