By Kevin McPherson
The Arkansas Razorbacks forced 18 turnovers en route to building a 13-point lead five minutes into the second half, but host South Carolina would suffer only 3 more giveaways the rest of the way while employing a stingy defense to complement red-hot shooting for a 40-15 game-closing run that punctuated a 77-65 win for the Gamecocks in Columbia, S.C.
Arkansas (14-9, 5-5 SEC) had won 3 consecutive games and 4 of it last 5 that included 4 straight league wins. The Razorbacks built double-digit second-half leads before trailing late in their last two games against LSU and Vanderbilt only to prevail in the end. But when South Carolina became the third such opponent to erase a second-half double-digit deficit for a late lead on Arkansas, the Hogs were unable to fire back with counter-punches — not on either end of the floor in the final 3 minutes of the game when the Gamecocks expanded on a two-point lead to close with a final 10-0 run.
South Carolina (12-11, 7-3 SEC) trailed 50-37 when it ran off a 22-4 run for a 59-54 lead with 8:36 to play, and though Arkansas did mount a 7-0 spurt to regain the lead at 61-59 lead with 6:02 left, the Gamecocks flexed their muscle, skill, and will at both ends of the floor to slam the door on the Hogs’ bid for a 5th straight league win. South Carolina is now 4-1 in SEC home games.
Rangy 6-6 freshmen A.J. Lawson and Keyshawn Bryant did damage inside and out, combining for 41 points on 15-of-23 field goals (including 5-of-7 from 3) to go with 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block. Senior forward / center Chris Silva — the Gamecocks leading scorer, rebounder, and shot-blocker coming in who had picked up at least 4 fouls in 9 straight games — challenged and got the better of Arkansas star center Daniel Gafford late in the game, finishing with 16 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks, 1 steal, and only 3 fouls (1 in the second half) in 30 minutes.
The Gamecocks had 15 first-half turnovers that fueled a 35-31 Arkansas lead at the break, but they surrendered only 6 miscues in the second half while shooting a blistering 17-of-28 from the field (60.7%), including 5-of-8 from 3 (62.5%), to flip the script and win going away. For the game, South Carolina made 26-of-48 field goals (54.2%), including a sizzling 10-of-15 from 3 (66.7%). South Carolina won rebounding (36-29) and finished only minus-7 in turnovers (21-14).
“Obviously disappointed in the outcome, but let’s give credit to Frank (Martin) and his South Carolina team,” said Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson, whose Hogs came into the contest having defeated Martin’s Gamecocks in 3 consecutive games as well as winning 5 out of the previous 6 meetings between the teams. “I thought they did what they had to do to protect the homecourt. Their veteran guys I thought settled their young guys down, and I thought Lawson — he was real effective in the second half — as well as the Bryant kid.
“But I thought we were in position to get some momentum, and our defense kind of let us down from that standpoint. But it was a two-point game with three minutes to go. We’ve just go to continue to learn how to finish, especially against a good team in South Carolina. They’ve been really good at home.”
The Razorbacks fell to 8-7 in games that were one- or two-possession margins inside of two minutes to play. The Hogs are now 3-4 in true road games (includes 2-3 in SEC road games) and 4-5 in all games played away from their home at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Arkansas shot only 22-of-57 from the field for 38.6%, including 6-of-22 from 3 for 27.3%. The Razorbacks had a second-consecutive 15-of-20 effort from the free-throw line — that’s 75% against both Vanderbilt and now South Carolina coming from a 65% free-throw shooting team on the season — but Arkansas did not get to the foul line in the final 10:40 of the game.
South Carolina’s defense was designed like so many are — to limit scoring opportunities inside for Gafford while smothering Isaiah Joe and sophomore Mason Jones on the perimeter — and it worked. Hogs sophomore point guard Jalen Harris was the team’s leading scorer with 17 points, but he took a team-high 16 shots (making only 5) while suffering 5 turnovers and having only 2 assists in a team-high 36 minutes. Meanwhile, Gafford had an off game at both ends of the floor while managing only 8 points on only 5 field-goal attempts, 5 rebounds, and no blocks as he played 22 foul-plagued minutes.
Gafford was coming off his best back-to-back games of the season — he averaged 25.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks in wins over LSU and Vanderbilt — but his troubles against South Carolina seemed to be self-inflicted as he had two perimeter reaching fouls that sent him to the bench early in both halves, and he had trouble staying upright and on his feet at both ends of the floor throughout.
“I think the fouls, and Daniel did a lot of it to himself,” Anderson responded when asked about Gafford’s poor outing against Silva and the Gamecocks. “I thought a lot of Dan’s (struggles) was Dan’s doing.”
Jones and Joe combined for 26 points on 8-of-20 shooting from the field (including a combined 6-of-15 from 3). Each had 3 rebounds and 2 steals, and Jones chipped in a team-high 4 assists. Starting junior forward Adrio Bailey provided a spark at both ends of the floor as he finished with 6 points, a team-high 6 rebounds, a team-high 3 steals, 1 block, and 1 assist in 25 minutes.
Trailing 2-0, Arkansas strung together a 12-2 run highlighted by two triples by Jones and a putback dunk by Gafford. The Hogs were up 14-10 when they engineered another spurt, 11-4, to grab a 26-14 lead with 7:47 remaining in the first half. A steal by Bailey led to a lay-in by Harris that gave the Hogs a 30-19 lead at the 4:18 mark, but Lawson struck back with two made 3s that propelled a 12-5 South Carolina run as Arkansas led by only four points, 35-31, at the break.
The Hogs were ahead 40-36 early in the second half when they went on a 10-1 run that was double-punctuated on back-to-back dunks by Gafford and Bailey for a 50-37 lead with 15:09 remaining.
But Lawson would string together back-to-back 3s again, this time triggering a 12-0 South Carolina run that pulled the Gamecocks within 50-49 at the 11:52 mark. After Jones and Harris combined to make 4-of-4 free throws for a 54-49 Arkansas lead at 10:40, South Carolina pounded away with a 10-0 run that resulted in a 59-54 Gamecocks lead with 8:47 left. Overall, it was a 22-4 South Carolina run that erased a 13-point deficit for a 5-point lead in the span of 6 minutes and 24 seconds.
Joe would make a 3 and a pull-up jumper followed by a Gafford tip-in as Arkansas responded with a 7-0 mini-run to reclaim the lead, 61-59, with 6:02 remaining. South Carolina’s Bryant and Arkansas’s Harris each had multiple scores over the next 3 minutes that resulted in a 67-65 Gamecocks’ lead, but the final 3:10 was all South Carolina as the home team shut out Arkansas’s offense while scoring the last 10 points of the game.
“We were up big, and I thought we gambled a couple of times and they made us pay for it,” Anderson said of his team’s defense giving up several game-tilting triples to a team ranked 12th in the SEC in 3-point shooting. “I thought they shifted the momentum with about 11, 12, 13 minutes to go. We had the game going in the direction we wanted, and we started gambling … with an inexperienced team that’s what happens. All of a sudden the momentum kind of shifted and it’s game on.
“A lot of time when you make shots, it gives you energy. This time of year it’s about the energy, man, who brings the energy. They had enough in the tank in those last three minutes, and that’s what we saw.”
Next up for the Hogs is a mid-week road game against Missouri (Tuesday, Feb. 12, 8 p.m. CT, SEC Network).