By Kevin McPherson
The Arkansas Razorbacks averted a near disaster in what was a grossly lopsided foul-and-free-throw advantage for No. 19 LSU on Saturday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, LA, but the Hogs stubbornly came through the other side with a 90-89 win that snapped the Tigers’ 10-game winning streak while knocking them from their unbeaten perch atop the SEC.
Sophomore wing Mason Jones cashed in LSU’s 21st turnover by navigating his way inside for the go-ahead basket in front of the rim for a one-point lead with 23 seconds left, sophomore center Daniel Gafford had a game-high 23 points to go with 8 rebounds, and the Hogs had a total of five players in double figures while exploding for their best offensive game in league play en route to building an 18-point second-half lead before hanging on in the end. The Hogs would lose their grip of that big lead — and they lost three players to fouls, including Gafford — as LSU employed a full-court press to force turnovers while capturing a couple of one-point leads late, the last at 89-88 on two made free throws after Gafford’s fifth foul at 2:02. Both team’s squandered opportunities to score from there before Jones worked his way down for the game-winner. The hard-charging Tigers had three shot attempts on their final possession but could not convert as time expired.
The Hogs (13-8, 4-4 SEC) have won 3 of their last 4 games, including 3 straight in league play to jump into the middle of the pack of an ultra-competitive SEC — they’re in a 6-way tie for 5th place — while injecting themselves back into the conversation for an eventual NCAA tournament at-large bid with what looks like a significant resume-building road win over co-SEC-leading LSU (17-4, 7-1 SEC). Arkansas’s last four road games have come against ranked opponents — then-No. 4 Tennessee, then-No. 18 Ole Miss, then No. 14 Texas Tech, and current-No. 19 LSU.
Arkansas improved to 3-3 in true road games and 4-4 in games played outside of Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks, who are now 6-6 in one- or two-possession games inside of a minute to play, picked up their first road win against a ranked team since beating then-No. 21 South Carolina, 83-76, nearly two years ago (Feb. 15, 2017). That road win over the Gamecocks came on the heels of another Arkansas road win, a come-from-behind 78-70 victory that had doubled as the Hogs’ most-recent win over LSU as well as their last win in Baton Rouge prior to Saturday. Arkansas had lost three consecutive games to LSU.
“I go into the locker room and man they were excited,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said of his team’s post-game celebration. “I can tell you that they were excited. What a gutsy performance. What a great game. We had a lot of ebb and flow. We came out and we made some shots and we had some guys come off the bench and give us quality minutes. I thought our guys were really focused with the task at hand. I keep saying we keep growing on the road and we were able to steal one here. They stole one at our place and we stole one here.
“We were due. You think about it. We played defense, shot the ball and had guys playing well coming off the bench. Keyshawn (Embery-Simpson) was really big, knocking down shots. Isaiah (Joe) had been a little puny but I thought he came out and he made sure they had to guard him. And of course Daniel. What can you say? What a warrior. He played big and fouled out. It just seemed everything was turning because LSU pressured us a little bit and they sped us up a little bit. But at the same time I thought our guys still remained poised and didn’t panic. Because other guys came in there. How about Reggie Chaney? Think about his impact on the game and what a big play by Mason Jones.”
Arkansas had three players foul out while committing 29 fouls as a team as LSU went 32-of-38 at the free throw line (84.2%) compared to the Hogs’ 7-of-11 (63.3%) effort on 18 LSU fouls. But the Hogs busted out for 35-of-60 shooting from the field (58.3%), including 13-of-24 from 3 (54.2%) as six Hogs made at least one shot from beyond the arc. The Tigers dominated the rebounding battle (44-20) and second-chance points (21-6), but the Hogs did just enough to win the turnovers (21-18) and points-off-turnovers (24-21) while limiting the SEC’s fourth-best shooting team to 26-of-59 field goals for 44.1%, including only 5-of-24 from 3 for 20.8%. Arkansas has now forced 3 of its last 4 opponents into 20 or more turnovers for a total of 82 takeaways in that 4-game span.
Gafford, who had a career-high 32 points to go with 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in the Hogs’ overtime loss against LSU last month, followed up with another impressive performance inside. His 23 points came on 11-of-15 field goals and 1-of-2 free throws, and he pitched in 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1 steal in 32 minutes before fouling out. In two games against a tall, long, and talented LSU frontline this season, Gafford made a combined 25-of-34 field goals for 73.5%.
“It was great,” Gafford said of the Hogs’ dramatic win after a roller-coaster second half. “The atmosphere — you know it was a toxic atmosphere coming to LSU. We just had to pull it out. It was a rough game coming down the stretch. But Mason Jones, he came to the bench and he said, ‘Give me the ball and I’ll take us home.’ And that’s exactly what he did.”
Jones finished with 10 points (3-of-8 field goals, including 2-of-5 from 3), 4 assists, 1 rebound, and 1 steal in 32 minutes. His game-winner marked the second time this season that he has recorded the final points in a one-point Arkansas win, the first coming in the form of an intentional 1-of-2 free throw trip that gave the Hogs a 73-72 home win over Indiana in November.
“I wanted it in Mason’s hands,” Anderson said of the Hogs’ final offensive possession. “I thought Mason would be better served because they were going to put Tremont Waters on whoever had the basketball and I thought Mason did a good job of handling the basketball and he made a nice attack and he made a big shot. Now you’ve got the ball and they still got 16 seconds to come down and score and we actually had a rebound with seven seconds and I think one of our guys threw it out.
“But lo and behold, the pressure had already shifted on LSU. This was a game that everyone thought they would win but they forgot to tell the Razorbacks that came in. I thought we played well.”
Joe battled through a cold / virus that limited his effectiveness in back-to-back games as he finished with 18 points (6-of-13 field goals, including 4-of-8 from 3, and 2-of-3 free throws) to go with 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in a team-high 34 minutes. Joe, who had only 8 points combined while dealing with illness against Texas Tech and Georgia last week, scored 15 of his points in a roller-coaster second half against LSU. His fall-away jumper at 7:20 pushed Arkansas’s lead back to double-figures, 79-68, after LSU had whittled an 18-point deficit down to 9, then Joe’s 2-of-2 free throw effort at 3:27 put Arkansas ahead 86-85.
Embery-Simpson scored 13 of his career-high-tying 16 points in the first half. He shot 6-of-6 from the field, including 4-of-6 free throws, while pitching in 2 rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench. His last basket was a triple that gave Arkansas a 75-63 lead with 8:57 to play after the Tigers had pulled within single digits.
Jalen Harris had his third-consecutive double-figures scoring game, chipping in 11 points (5-of-7 field goals, including 1-of-3 from 3) to go with a team-high-tying 5 assists, 1 rebound, and 1 steal in 24 minutes. His 3-pointer with 4:32 to play lifted the Hogs to an 84-79 lead, and he would foul out 10 seconds later.
Arkansas’s trio of combo-4 forwards combined for another strong outing after showing well in the Hogs’ 70-60 win at home against Georgia on Tuesday. Gabe Osabuohien had 3 points, a career-high and game-high-tying 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, and 3 drawn charges in 16 minutes before fouling out. Adrio Bailey had all of his 5 points toward the end of a 21-7 Arkansas run that gave the Hogs their biggest lead, 66-48, with 13:14 to play. Bailey also had 2 steals and 1 rebound in 22 minutes. Chaney played only 10 minuts off the bench, but made both of his field goal attempts for 4 points, including a dunk off a nice feed from Jones to cap that 21-7 Hogs’ spurt.
Waters , the Tigers’ star sophomore guard, came in off a career-high 36 points in a road win over Texas A&M on Wedneday, and he was LSU’s leader on the season with 15.3 points and 6.0 assists per game. But Arkansas held him in check as Waters managed only 12 points (3-of-12 field goals, including 1-of-6 from 3, plus 5-of-6 free throws) while suffering 5 turnovers, including an ill-advised attempted lob pass from near the halfcourt line that resulted in a turnover as LSU held a one-point lead late in the final minute. That play gave the ball back to Arkansas and set up Jones’s game-winning basket. Waters had averaged 17.3 points and 10 assists in the Tigers’ 3-game winning streak over the Hogs. Naz Reid scored 19 points to go with 10 rebounds. Ja’vonte Smart had 18 points, Skylar Mays 17 points, and Kavell Bigby-Williams 10 points for the Tigers.
Just a few weeks ago, the Razorbacks suffered through a 4-game losing streak — the first such skid in Mike Anderson’s eight seasons at Arkansas — while getting out of the gates 1-4 for 11th place in league play. Similar to Arkansas teams in 2016-17 (started 1-3 but stood 5-3 after 8 league games) and ’17-18 (started 1-3 but stood 4-4 after 8 league games), these Hogs appear to have corrected their course heading into the final third of the regular season — also known as the final 10 games. The ’16-17 Hogs went 7-3 in their final 10 games to finish third in the SEC at 12-6 while locking up an NCAA tounament at-large bid, while the ’17-18 Hogs finished 6-4 for fourth place in the SEC at 10-8 while also securing an NCAA tournament at-large bid. While it remains to seen how this much younger version of the Razorbacks finishes out the regular season, they have at least positioned themselves to be in the conversation for postseason play coming down the stretch in a league that currently projects 7-8 teams to the NCAA tournament.
The Hogs, who came in ranked No. 68 in the NCAA NET rankings with LSU sitting at No. 16, are now 1-3 vs. the current NCAA NET rankings Top 25, 1-3 vs. the current NCAA NET rankings Nos. 26-50, 3-1 vs. the current NCAA NET rankings Nos. 51-100, and 8-1 vs. the current NCAA NET rankings 101-plus. Arkansas has two games remaining against the NCAA NET rankings Top 25 (at No. 8 Kentucky and at No. 25 Auburn), three against the NCAA NET rankings Nos. 26-50 (all home games against No. 27 Mississippi State, No. 38 Ole Miss, and No. 44 Alabama), and five against teams ranked outside the NCAA NET Top 50.
Arkansas had started slow in games all season long, but the Hogs jumped out 4-0 on Saturday and used a 13-0 run — fueled by two Gafford scores inside, two 3-pointers by Embery-Simpson, and a triple by Osabuohien — to grab a 20-11 lead at the 11:47 mark of the first half. LSU clawed back, mostly at the free throw line, to pull even at 34-all on big man Bigby-Williams’ dunk with 3:23 left in the opening half. The Hogs would close with an 11-7 run for a 45-41 halftime lead as Gafford’s 15 points (7-of-8 field goals and 1-of-1 free throws), Embery-Simpson’s 13 points (5-of-6 field goals including 3-of-3 from 3), Harris’s 6 points (3-of-4 field goals) and 3 assists, and Osabuohien’s 3 points, 5 assists, 2 rebounds, and 1 steal paved the way.
The Razorbacks shot a blistering 19-of-30 field goals (63.3%) in the first 20 minutes, including 6-of-11 from 3 (54.5%) as four Hogs made shots from beyong the arc. LSU started poorly shooting the ball, but finished the half 13-of-27 (48.1%), including 3-of-13 from 3 (23.1%). The Tigers, who came in the second-best free throw shooting team in the SEC at 75.8%, stayed close at the free throw line by making 12-of-13 (92.3%) compared to the Hogs’ 1-of-1.
Joe (5 points), Bailey (5), Gafford (4), Jones (3), Harris (2), and Chaney (2) fueled that second-half opening 21-7 run that gave Arkansas its 66-48 lead with 13:14 to go, but LSU would put together a 37-18 run over the next 10 minutes for their first lead, 85-84, since the opening 5 minutes of the game.
The Hogs return home to face Vanderbilt (Tuesday, 8 p.m. CT, SEC Network) before going back on the road against South Carolina (Saturday, Feb. 9, 2:30 p.m. CT, SEC Network).