GREENVILLE, S.C. — Perspective is a heck of a thing. Two Arkansas games in less than a week’s time both sullied by flagrant fouls. One a Razorbacks loss. The other a Razorbacks win.
Jaylen Barford was shoved in the back. Dominique Hawkins took forearms in his throat. The only difference between the two flagrant-1 fouls in Arkansas’ past two games was one went the Razorbacks’ way, the other did not.
That’s it. Neither was as egregious as Moses Kingsley’s flagrant-2 against Kentucky last Sunday, but both fouls were unprovoked. Both fouls were unnecessary. Both fouls were out of frustration. One was just far more important.
Arkansas beat Seton Hall in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, 77-71, after Desi Rodriguez put two hands into the back of Barford, Arkansas’ junior guard, sending him tumbling to the wooden floor at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. Officials congregated to determine whether Rodriguez’ misdeed was more serious than a common foul, as it was originally called. Arkansas waited, holding a 1-point lead with 18 seconds left.
And Rodriguez learned his fate.
The same way Arkansas crowds defended Dusty Hannahs’ forearms up near Hawkins’ face in last week’s SEC Championship Game loss to Kentucky, Seton Hall proponents believed the call against Rodriguez was too much.
“Physical, hard-nosed play.”
A writer from New Jersey asked Arkansas coach Mike Anderson about the call against Rodriguez in the final moments. He suggested to Anderson the “They” of the world thought it was “borderline.” Anderson was having none of that.
“I thought it was no play on the ball. That’s as simple as that,” Anderson said. “There was no play on the ball. He pushed the guy down. You saw it. I saw it. I mean, what’s borderline when you say, you know what, he didn’t play on the ball?”
Rodriguez was called for a flagrant-1 when the referees conference finished. That meant Barford would go to the free-throw line for two shots and the Razorbacks would get the ball back, thus providing little chance for Seton Hall to have an opportunity to tie the game when it finally would gain possession.
Barford sank both free throws and Daryl Macon sank one of his two immediately after. Arkansas had a 4-point lead. No 4-point shot exists. Khadeen Carrington tried a 3-pointer, instead; it rang untrue. Arkansas rebounded and Macon finished off the Pirates with two more free throws in the final seconds.
Pretending the game hinged on the call is incorrect, as well. Even if Rodriguez was called for a standard foul, Barford made both free throws. Seton Hall still has to go to the other end and make a 3-pointer to tie the game.
The foul did prevent Seton Hall from tying it at the time, but it didn’t prevent Seton Hall from winning. The Pirates’ poor play in the final five minutes did that.
Pirates coach Kevin Willard did everything he could to avoid saying too much in the post-game media conference. It was clear he wasn’t in love with the call. He also understood it. In a way.
“It’s an NCAA Tournament game. I think you really gotta understand what’s going on,” Willard said. “But they reffed a good game all night. So I can’t really complain about whether I agree or not. I’m always going to disagree with it. That’s what coaches do.
“We should never have put ourselves in that situation. We had a chance, if we just take care of the ball with 1:20 left. You don’t want to leave it to other people. We had the chance.”
Arkansas has a chance now. The Razorbacks get top-seeded North Carolina on Sunday in the second round. The Tar Heels eliminated Arkansas in that round each of the Hogs’ past two NCAA Tournament appearances, in 2015 and 2008.
Now, maybe, just maybe, Arkansas and its fans can hope for a game without controversy, conspiracy or cruelty.