By Kevin McPherson
During his post-game radio interview Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said the Missouri Tigers “wanted it more” until his Hogs realized they were “in a game” Tuesday in Columbia, MO — a peculiar order of things given that Arkansas came in fighting to stay alive for a third consecutive NCAA tournament bid while Mizzou was muddling at the bottom of the SEC.
Nonetheless, in a matchup between two teams that struggle with holding onto leads the short-handed Tigers survived, 79-78, after Arkansas had a chance in the final 10.5 seconds to overcome a 14-point second-half deficit for a much-needed road win. Sophomore point guard Jalen Harris — he had just lobbed for a Daniel Gafford dunk with 11 second remaining to pull the Hogs within one, 79-78 — was able to draw an offensive foul as Missouri tried to inbound the basketball following Gafford’s dunk, giving Arkansas possession down a point with 10.5 seconds to play.
After a couple of timeouts, Harris took Arkansas’s inbounds pass and dribbled the ball out high, then he drove toward the paint but was unable to find to a teammate. Instead, Harris found Missouri’s bulky and physical big man, 6-10 sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon, walling him off as he forced up an off-balance shot attempt that fell several feet short of the basket as time expired.
Arkansas (14-10, 5-6 SEC) has lost consecutive games against two average — at best — offensive teams in South Carolina and Mizzou that combined to score 92 points in 40 minutes (the Gamecocks with 46 second-half points that fueled a 77-65 win Saturday, and the Tigers with 46 first-half points that forged a 10-point lead at the break on Tuesday). The Hogs are now 8-8 in games that were one- or two-possession margins inside of two minutes to play, and they’re now 3-5 in true road games (includes 2-4 in SEC road games) as well as 4-6 in games played outside their home at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Missouri (12-11, 3-8 SEC) had lost 5 of its last 6 games — the lone win in that stretch coming against a Vanderbilt team that is 0-10 in the SEC — before defeating Arkansas. The Hogs and Tigers have split their last 6 games, each team winning at home, but Arkansas is 7-3 in the last 10 meetings between the two schools.
The Tigers, playing without star forward Jontay Porter all season due to an injury, were also without second- and third-leading scorers Mark Smith and Tilmon in their 68-59 home loss to Texas A&M on Saturday. And though Smith — the SEC’s top 3-point shooter by percentage — did not play Tuesday and has not played since injuring a foot in a 72-60 loss at Arkansas on Jan. 23, Tilmon returned from an emergency wisdom-tooth extraction that kept him out against the Aggies and had a team-high 21 points (8-of-11 field goals and 5-of-6 free throws) to go with 5 rebounds and 3 blocks in 30 minutes against the Razorbacks.
Leading scorer and senior guard Jordan Geist — who’s “gift” 1-of-2 free-throw trip after a phantom foul call on Gafford with 20 seconds remaining extended a Mizzou 2-point lead to 3, 79-76 — finished with 18 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal. Freshman guard Xavier Pinson — he was called for the dead-ball, push-off offensive foul on Arkansas’s Harris with 10.5 seconds left that gave the ball back to the Hogs — chipped in 11 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal off the bench for Mizzou.
Gafford — he had his worst outing of the season (8 points, 5 rebounds, and no blocks in 22 foul-plagued minutes) Saturday at South Carolina — bounced back strong against Missouri by scoring Arkansas’s first 10 points of the game and scoring 10 of the Hogs’ final 17 points. The 6-11 El Dorado native finished with a game-high 26 points (12-of-17 field goals and 2-of-4 free throws) to go with 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1 steal in 26 minutes.
Freshman guard Isaiah Joe came into the game one 3-point basket shy of tying former Hog Rotnei Clarke’s freshman record for 3-pointers made in a season (83). Joe socred 17 points while making 6-of-11 field goals — including 4-of-9 from 3 to smash the freshman made 3-pointers record with 7 regular-season games remaining. Joe scored 10 straight points for Arkansas that ignited a 15-4 Hogs’ run that erased a 14-point deficit, 52-38, bringing the Hogs within 58-53 at the 11:18 mark of the second half.
Sophomore wing Mason Jones finished with 12 points, including 6 consecutive that cut Missouri’s 10-point lead down to 65-61 with 7:57 remaining.
Arkansas lost bench scoring, 24-13, but sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien (7 points all in the second half) and freshman guard Desi Sills (3 points) were key in aiding the Hogs’ comeback. The Razorbacks continued to struggle rebounding the basketball, losing on the glass again, 39-33, which brought the team to a combined minus-64 on the boards in its last 5 games. Arkansas had forced 117 turnovers in its last 6 games, but Missouri also won the turnover battle, 12-11.
Arkansas shot 28-of-60 from the field (46.7%), but that included only 5-of-20 from 3 (25.0%). For the third-consecutive game, the SEC’s worst free throw shooting team hovering in the mid-60s in percentage topped 70% from the line — 17-of-23 for 73.9%. Missouri was 28-of-61 shooting (45.9%), including 9-of-26 from 3 (34.6%). The Tigers shot 14-of-18 from the free throw line (77.8%).
Arkansas fell behind 20-10, scrapped to within 30-24, but trailed by 10 again, 46-36, at the break as Missouri used a 9-4 turnovers advantage, several putback opportunities, and a 5-to-1 win in made 3-pointers. That lead ballooned to 14 points, 52-38, early in the second half before Arkansas chipped away with a chance to win in the end.
Up next for the Hogs is a return home to host Mississippi State (7:30 p.m. CT, Saturday, Feb. 16, SEC Network).