FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — It would not be fun if Arkansas just blew out opponents in victories.
No, the Razorbacks put some spark into the basketball version of the Battle Line Rivalry on Saturday night at Bud Walton Arena. A ridiculous, sometimes-great, sometimes-terrible performance against Missouri had just enough of the former, though.
And with Arkansas snapping a three-game losing streak, it might have saved its NCAA Tournament hopes.
Arkansas had not lost four straight SEC games since John Pelphrey’s penultimate season as coach in 2009-2010. A loss would have left Arkansas with Vanderbilt and Texas A&M as teams with one or zero conference wins.
Instead, despite blowing an 18-point lead, the Razorbacks had some chutzpah in the final minutes, staging a comeback of their own and beating Missouri, 65-63, to move to 12-5 overall and 2-3 in SEC play.
An alley-oop from Daryl Macon to Daniel Gafford with 57.9 seconds left broke a 63-all tie and sent BWA into a frenzy. Gafford was fouled on the play, too, and as the teams went to their huddles following a Missouri timeout, the Hog Call broke out among the sellout crowd.
Gafford missed the free throw and after both teams failed on the ensuing possessions, Missouri had a final chance with 11.8 seconds left.
Arkansas did on defense what it had done to build the massive lead in the first place. The guards swarmed Missouri on the perimeter. Jordan Geist had to heave a 3-pointer from the corner while falling backward with a hand in his face. It clanged off the iron and in the mad scramble for the carom, the clock expired: 65-63, Razorbacks.
Missouri had rallied from that 18-point deficit when Arkansas was playing its best basketball in the first half. The Tigers used a 17-2 run of their own in the second half to build a 6-point lead with less than 8 minutes play. But Missouri became sloppy in the final few minutes. The Tigers didn’t have a point in the last 2:49.
The first 10 minutes of the game were the best Arkansas has played in weeks. Coach Mike Anderson’s bunch looked like the team from November and early December, the team that beat Oklahoma and Minnesota. Then, inexplicably, the Razorbacks reverted. Stopped running. Quit executing. Became lax.
They had built that 18-point lead early. Freshman forward Darious Hall, inserted into the starting lineup for senior guard Daryl Macon, provided a spark. Arkansas went on a 13-2 run, most of it between the first and second media timeouts, to open a 14-7 lead. Hall’s twisting lay-up forced a Cuonzo Martin timeout just seconds before the TV break was set to hit. Did no good. Hall hit another pair of buckets immediately after making it a 17-2 Arkansas run.
A smaller Missouri run came in the other 10 minutes of the first half. The 13-2 stretch brought the Tigers back into the game, though. Arkansas went the last 4:25 of the half without a field goal and led 35-28 at the break.
The second half was the same. Arkansas had a good start, built its lead back to double digits, then fell apart. Kassius Robertson, a grad transfer from Canisius, was too much. He scored 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting, including 6 of 11 from 3-point range. A 17-2 Missouri run, matching Arkansas’ from the first half, gave the Tigers a 59-53 lead with less than 8 minutes left.
That’s when Arkansas’ rally came, largely because of Missouri’s inability to execute.
Arkansas had four players in double figures. Gafford led with 15 points and added 6 rebounds.
The game was Hall’s best of his career. He’s at his best on the run, as opposed to in a half-court offense, and it paid off. Most of his buckets were at the rim and with his size as a forward, he brought a different element than Arkansas’ penetrating guards. Hall did little in the second half, but the flash in the first was positive for the future.
Arkansas still fights bouts of cruise control. In fact, the Razorbacks have had more moments of lazy play than energized play this SEC season. Thus the 2-3 record.
What’s next for Arkansas?
The Razorbacks are at Florida on Wednesday, Jan. 17, at 6 p.m. CT.