The 9th-seeded Razorbacks (17-15, 8-11 in SEC games) had their 3-game winning streak halted and will now wait to see if a bid to the NIT (National Invitation Tournament) comes their way at the end of the weekend after playing in back-to-back NCAATs in 2016-17 and ’17-18.
Florida did all the punching Thursday at the SEC Tournament, ripping away at the Arkansas Razorbacks with body blows on the glass, in the turnover battle, and in the 50/50-ball scrums before delivering the knockout punch in the final 5 minutes for a 66-50 win at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
In doing so, the 8th-seeded Gators (18-14, 10-9 in SEC games) may have also punched their ticket to an at-large bid in the 2019 NCAA Tournament later this month. Florida snapped a 3-game losing skid to advance to Friday’s SECT quarterfinals against No. 1 seed LSU at noon CT.
Florida — which for the second time this season held the Hogs to a season-low in scoring in a Gators’ win — came in as the worst rebounding team in the SEC. But the Gators dictated tempo, dominated the glass (41-26, including 19-8 in offensive rebounds for an 18-6 advantage in second-chance-points), won the turnover battle (13-12), and outscored the Hogs 14-4 in the final 4:32 to win going away.
Arkansas, a 57-51 loser against Florida at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Jan. 9, has now dropped 10 of its last 11 games against the Gators spanning the last six seasons with the lone win coming just over a year ago — an 80-72 victory on March 9, 2018, that advanced the Hogs to the 2018 SECT semifinals. Both teams received at-large bids to the NCAAT last season, but now only the Gators have a shot to make the Dance in 2019.
Asked if he agreed that Florida “out-toughed” the Hogs, sophomore center Daniel Gafford didn’t hesitate to tip his hat to the Gators.
“Yeah I do,” said Gafford, who may have played his final game as a Razorback as he is expected to leave school at the end of the current season to enter the 2019 NBA Draft, “Because they out-toughed us on the glass, they out-toughed us when it came to us running our offense, because they didn’t let us run what we wanted. Then (against the Hogs’ defense) they banged us on the inside, and we didn’t have an answer for them.”
Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson also credited Florida, and though he expressed disappointment in the Hogs’ performance he had no complaints about his team’s effort.
“Very disappointed in our performance,” said Anderson, who’s nearing the end of his eighth season as Head Hog. “We’d been playing some pretty good basketball, so to come on this stage and not play as well as we’ve been playing its kind of disappointing. But, it wasn’t because of these guys not going out and leaving it all out on the floor.
“But give credit to Florida. I thought the tempo was to their liking … I thought it came down to the offensive rebounding. They shot it and went and got it, and I thought that was the difference in the game. We didn’t do a good job of putting bodies on them, and their freshman (forward Keyontae) Johnson I thought he had an outstanding game. The game was still right there in the balance with a little bit over three minutes to go, and they made plays. Some of their veteran guys made plays, some of their young guys made plays. So that means survive, and we didn’t survive. So we’re very, very disapointed … tough, tough loss.”
Johnson posted a double-double for the Gators — 20 points and 12 rebounds — while senior guard and North Little Rock native KeVaughn Allen finished with 17 points as he’ll end his college career averaging 16.0 points and shooting 43% from 3 (numbers well above his career averages) against Arkansas while going 7-1 in games played against the Hogs.
In addition to the Gators winning all the aforementioned hustle categories, they held the Razorbacks to 17-of-46 field goals (37%), including only 4-of-16 from 3 (25%). The Hogs came into the game having made a combined 39-of-76 from 3 for 51.3% in its last 4 games, but Florida entered with the best 3-point defense in the SEC, and according to kenpom.com’s college basketball ratings the Gators had the 13th best adjusted defensvie efficiency in the nation.
Freshman Isaiah Joe weighed on the offensive struggles and rebounding woes for Arkansas, which came in averaging 76.3 points per game on the season but managed only 101 points combined in two games against Florida.
“We were playing to their tempo,” Joe said, “And so, whenever we don’t play our tempo its hard for us to get into our sets and we didn’t execute very well coming down the stretch. Knowing that they like the slower tempo, we played to it. We shot ourselves in the foot like Dan said. It gave them the edge, you could see that in the game and the performance. If we would have played the Fastest 40 ball, I think it would have been a way different outcome.
“Bottom line is, they just played a lot more aggressive than we did. They wanted it a lot more. Going down the stretch, you know they had all those offensive rebounds. They were just beating us to it — the 50/50 balls, the long rebounds … but, they’re a real aggressive team and we knew that they were going to crash the boards going into the game. We just didn’t adjust to it. We didn’t match their intensity.”
Both Gafford and Joe were asked if they’d welcome another chance to play in ’18-19 via an NIT bid.
“At this point we’ll be happy to play another basketball game,” said Joe, who was named to the SEC All Freshman team on Tuesday and finished with 12 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds, and 2 steals in 34 minutes against the Gators. “Nobody wants the season to end short. We’ve just got to keep a positive attitude and see where we go from here. We’ve just got to hold our heads high.”
Gafford, named consensus All SEC First Team and SEC All Defensive team on Tuesday, agreed.
“At this point out, another basketball game would be great for us,” said the 6-11 El Dorado native, who finished with 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 block in 33 minutes against Florida. “Like Isaiah said, we didn’t want our season to end this short. We wanted to go far, especially in this tournament. And then we wanted to make it to the NCAA tournament because being in that atmosphere would be great for us, and being able to make noise in both of these tournaments would be a great thing for Arkansas.”
Gafford was asked about his thoughts on fan unrest that have some calling for Anderson to be fired.
“Mike Anderson is one of the best coaches to ever do it here,” Gafford said. “So I don’t really know why people want him gone. I mean, basically Mike’s got to be greater than the haters … Coach Anderson, he can always silence the haters with what he can do. So, that’s it on that one.
“It’s been draining, but our main focus is to just let that go in one ear and out the other. Or just wipe that off our shoulders and keep pushing forward. Everybody has an opinion … You can’t keep people from expressing themselves. It is what it is. They say what they want to say, and we play how we want to play.”
Asked about his future after the season, Gafford did not bite.
“I’m just mainly focusing on the team right now,” he said. “The season obviously didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but we learned a lot this season.”
Arkansas came in short-handed with freshman combo guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson unavailable due to a sprained ankle suffered Tuesday during a practice after the team had arrived in Nashville. But the Razorbacks started well and actually dicated a fast-paced tempo in the first 10 or so minutes of the game.
Behind 6 early points from Joe — including a 4-point play on a triple-and-1 — plus a 3-pointer from freshman starting guard Desi Sills, the Hogs engineered a 15-4 run to seize a 17-9 lead midway through the first half. But Florida chipped away and eventually reclaimed the lead, 26-25, with 4:34 to play before the break. Allen and Johnson each scored 10 points to stake the Gators to a 30-28 halftime advantage. Joe and Gafford combined for 16 points in the first 20 minutes.
Gafford scored the first basket of the second half to tie the game, but a free throw by Florida freshman guard Andrew Nebhard would give the Gators the lead for good, 31-30, just two minutes in.
From there Arkansas would battle to stay within one- and two-possession deficits, getting as close as 47-44 with 7:57 remaining and hanging in down by six, 52-46, with 4:44 to play. But the final 4:32 belonged to the Gators, who closed the game on a 14-4 run to win going away.
“At the beginning of the year I talked about patience,” Anderson said of his team, which returned only three players with SEC experience from last season and had one of the youngest rosters in the nation. “You’ve got to have long patience with this basketball team. As the year progresses, you hope they pick up on the things that you talk about. So it seemed like every time we’d go to a different part of the season, it was like a new chapter for these guys. So even coming here (to the SECT) it’s a new chapter. I thought adversity took place, and we met it head-on and then we started to figure out some things. But it’s a challenge with so many new guys.
“But at the end of the day, it falls on my responsibility. I thought for the most part, they grew. They got better.”
Arkansas started the season 6-1, including a near-miss loss in overtime against Texas at a neutral site in the season opener followed by a narrow win over Indiana of the Big Ten a couple of games later at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks would suffer three more losses in winnable non-conference games — at home against Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech in December, and on the road against top-15-ranked Texas Tech in the Big XII-SEC Challenge in January. The Hogs won another nail-biter in its SEC opener at Texas A&M, but they would suffer 4- and 6-game SEC losing streaks — both the worst stretches under Anderson at Arkansas — before responding with 4- and 3-game winning streaks to extend Anderson’s run of no losing campaigns as a head coach to 17 seasons. Among the notable wins in league play was a 90-89 road victory over eventual SEC regular-season champion and now-No. 9 LSU, plus home wins over NCAAT-bound Ole Miss and NCAAT-hopeful Alabama — both victories coming in Arkansas’s 3-game winning spree that wrapped up the regular season.
Now, the Hogs must hope their modest late-season success is enough to play another day in the NIT. Once the NCAAT’s 68-team field is finalized and announced on Sunday, the NIT will follow suit and announce its 32-team field.