By Kevin McPherson
If the 10th-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks had failed to do so already, they stamped their ticket to next week’s NCAA Tournament while picking up their fourth Quad-1 win of the season with a dramatic 76-73 victory over 7-seed Auburn on Thursday in the second round of the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
Nick Smith, Jr.’s stop-and-go drive on the right side of the floor led to his pull-up jumper on the baseline with 16 seconds remaining to put the Hogs back in the lead at 74-73, and Devo Davis’ steal followed by his 2-of-2 free throw conversion with 12 seconds to play extended the lead to 76-73 before Auburn’s Wendell Green, Jr., missed a three-pointer at the buzzer with Smith and Davis both contesting as the Razorbacks held on after surrendering a 15-point second-half lead.
The Razorbacks held their biggest advantage at 54-39, and they were still up 59-46 when Auburn used a 9-0 run — including a 4-point possession following a technical foul — to pull within 59-55 midway through the second half. It was 70-63 with Arkansas ahead when the Tigers put together a 10-2 run capped by Little Rock native Allen Flanigan’s driving layup with 41 seconds to play that gave Auburn a 73-72 lead, its first lead since going ahead 2-0 to start the game. That set up Smith’s dandy of a game-winner with Davis sealing things with his takeaway and two free throws just seconds later.
Arkansas (20-12, 9-10 against SEC teams, NET No. 18) snapped its three-game losing streak and finally notched its fourth consecutive 20-win season under fourth-year head coach Eric Musselman. The Razorbacks improved to 5-1 in neutral-site games this season while moving to 4-0 all-time in SECT openers under Musselman.
The Hogs will face 2-seed Texas A&M (double-bye) in the SECT quarterfinals on Friday (6 p.m. CT, SEC Network). It will serve as a rubber-match between the two teams as each defeated the other on its homecourt during the regular season. The Razorbacks will need to win three more games over the next three days to win the SECT championship, which would result in earning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAAT, although the Hogs are safely in the Dance at this point.
Arkansas improved on its Quad-1 and Quad-2 combined resume — 4-9 record in Q1 games plus a 4-2 mark in Q2 games — with a strong NET ranking and only one Q3 loss (against LSU in the SEC opener in December), meaning the Hoop Hogs are a lock for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. Still, Arkansas is averaging a 9-seed projection for the fast-approaching NCAAT and can use the SECT to potentially improve on NCAAT seeding. The NCAAT selection committee will announce the 68-team NCAAT field on Sunday.
“Just really proud of our team for leading 37 minutes of the 40-minute game,” Musselman said. “We wanted our shot diet tonight to be by paint points. 48 of those. We felt rebounding, especially defensive rebounding, would be the key to the win. I thought out-rebounding a very, very good rebounding team in Auburn by 18, I thought our entire team did a great job, led by Devo’s 10 rebounds, nine of them on the defensive end. He was also assigned to Wendell Green, which meant he was out on the floor, guarding at the three-point line, yet he still seemed to track down nine defensive rebounds.”
Freshman guard Anthony Black led Arkansas with 19 points (6-of-10 field goals and 7-of-9 free throws) to go with 6 rebounds, a game-high 6 assists, 2 steals, and 5 turnovers in 37 minutes. Smith scored 12 of his 14 points (6-of-12 field goals, including 2-of-5 from 3, and 0-of-1 free throw) in the second half as he also finished with 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 3 turnovers in 27 minutes. Senior forward / center Makhi Mitchell notched 12 points (5-of-7 field goals and 2-of-2 free throws), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in 24 minutes off the bench. Freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh pitched in 11 points (4-of-5 field goals and 3-of-4 free throws), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 block in 21 minutes. Davis had 7 points, a game-high 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block while playing all 40 minutes. Junior guard Ricky Council IV had 7 points, 1 rebound, 2 steals, and 1 block in 33 minutes. Senior forward Kamani Johnson had 4 points and 3 rebounds.
Arkansas owned the glass (37-19, including 13-6 on the offensive boards) and second-chance-points (18-6) while holding a plus-8 advantage in points-in-the-paint (48-40). The Razorbacks lost turnovers (19-10) and points-off-turnovers (19-15). Each team scored 12 fast-break points.
Arkansas shot 28-of-50 from the field (56.0%), including 3-of-11 from 3 (27.3%), and 17-of-23 at the free throw line (73.9%). Auburn made 25-of-51 field goals (49.0%), including 5-of-16 from 3 (31.3%), and 18-of-27 at the foul line (66.7%).
“Yeah, we believe in Nick, of course,” Davis said of his fellow Jacksonville native. “We know Nick can make tough shots like that. He’s a scorer. We believe in him in situations like that. On the last shot by Green, it was pretty open. 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. I think he did two great plays on the offensive end and defensive end.”
Musselman also weighed in on Smith’s big shot.
“Obviously Nick, the biggest thing in basketball is when your play dies, who can go manufacture their own shot,” 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. We just talked about this game has its own theme, its own identity. Forget what’s happened in the past.
“Nick read the defense well, was really aggressive, as well. He wanted the ball in his hands. I thought our guys did a good job of finding him and not rushing a shot. We rushed a shot about a minute and a half before that. For a freshman to make that shot in an SEC Tournament game, that’s a big shot.”
The Tigers (20-12, 10-9 against SEC teams, NET No. 32) are currently projected as a 9-seed for the NCAAT. Guard KD Johnson had a game-high 20 points to lead Auburn, while Flanigan finished with 15 points and big man Johnni Broome had 13 points and 7 rebounds. Green was limited to 11 points.
The Hogs moved to 38-21 all-time against Auburn — includes 2-0 all-time against the Tigers in SECT play — as they have now won 4 of the last 5 meetings between the two schools. Auburn won at home, 72-59, in the teams’ only regular-season SEC meeting in early January.
The Hogs’ aforementioned 4-9 mark in Q1 games includes a neutral-site win over Auburn, road win against Kentucky, a home win against Texas A&M, and a win over San Diego State in a neutral-site game, and two losses to Alabama in home-and-away play as well as losses to Kentucky at home, Tennessee on the road, Texas A&M on the road, Baylor on the road, Missouri on the road, Auburn on the road, and Creighton at a neutral site. The Razorbacks are 4-2 in Q2 games (home wins over Florida, Missouri, and Bradley, a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home loss to Mississippi State, and a road loss to Vanderbilt), and they are 12-1 in Q3/4 games.
Musselman improved to 4-2 in the SECT and 93-40 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 45-32 record against SEC teams and a 6-2 mark spanning the last two NCAA Tournaments that culminated in back-to-back Elite Eight runs and back-to-back final national Top 10 rankings.
Musselman has seen Texas A&M enough to know what the Aggies will bring to Friday’s matchup.
“Well, we played ’em twice,” he said. “First of all, they’re really well-coached. We as a staff have incredible respect for Buzz Williams. He does a great job. They’re physical. Their up-front guys, Coleman and Marble, rebound the basketball. They score points in the paint. Obviously they have two star players in Wade Taylor and Radford. Those guys, I actually love watching ’em play. Radford has incredible toughness. In my opinion might be as versatile as any player in the league because he can guard one through five basically, for sure one through four. Then Dennis, he’s a really great complementary guy to the up-front physicality of Marble-Coleman and then the backcourt of Taylor and Radford.”
Against Auburn on Thursday, Musselman started the combination of Smith, Black, Davis, Council, and Johnson.
The Hogs attacked the Tigers’ zone defense with pass-first entries to the high post / free-throw-line extended that resulted in dumo-down passes for easy scores at the rim and a 10-2 lead out of the gates.
Arkansas would twice build 10-point leads — 30-20 and 37-27 — but a rash of turnovers, poor shots, and defensive assignment busts fed an Auburn 6-0 run to close the first half with the Razorbacks holding a 37-33 lead at the break.
Black led Arkansas with 9 points and 4 rebounds in the first 20 minutes while Davis had 5 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists.
Arkansas shot 13-of-24 from the field (54.2%), including 1-of-7 from 3 (14.3%), and 10-of-12 at the free throw line (83.3%). Auburn shot 10-of-23 from the field (43.5%), including 2-of-8 from 3 (25%), and 11-of-14 at the foul line (78.6%).
The Hogs dominated the glass (19-7), second-chance-points (8-0), and fastbreak points (9-2) while also holding advantages in points-in-the-paint (24-16) and points-off-turnovers (6-4). The Tigers won the first-half turnover battle (8-4).