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A fairly good week for the Hogs despite splitting games 

click to enlarge STILL ON THE HOT SEAT: Mike Anderson (file photo) - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • STILL ON THE HOT SEAT: Mike Anderson (file photo)

Arkansas had, by this mercurial team’s standard, a fairly good week, which is a curious assessment of this squad given that the Hogs split two games.

The first, a narrow 67-64 loss to Top 15 Texas Tech in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, was discouraging for a few reasons. The Razorbacks played terrific defense in the first half, forcing 15 turnovers from a usually ball-secure Red Raider squad that has flourished since former Little Rock Trojan coach Chris Beard took the helm. Arkansas also shot free throws respectably and made a late charge to get back within one possession of taking the lead or tying the game in the final minute.

Sadly, yet again, the Hogs were stunted by their own maddening inability to manage late-game situations well. As in earlier losses to Western Kentucky, LSU and Texas, the Razorbacks flubbed their most critical possession of the game. They failed to get off a shot down 65-62, and Tech escaped largely because their unheralded backcourt support for top scorer Jarrett Culver had big efforts: While Culver erupted for 12 points after halftime, canning only a single three-pointer in the opening 20 minutes, Davide Moretti posted a career-best 21 and Matt Mooney chipped in with 12 in a herky-jerky affair that saw the Hogs win the rebounding, turnover and paint scoring. Daniel Gafford, Jalen Harris and Mason Jones all ended up with double-figure scoring efforts, but the Hogs were erratic with the three-pointer and unable to make critical defensive stands.

However, in the overall scope of things, it was indeed a good effort by a struggling young team against a ranked foe. Mike Anderson voiced encouragement after the game and felt his team would be well positioned to use the game as a turning point in a so-far middling season.

At least for Tuesday night, his premonition was on point. Granted, the Hogs were facing a somewhat pedestrian Georgia team in Bud Walton, but the game was — as seemingly every contest with Georgia has been for years — a genuine dogfight. The Bulldogs ironically suffered from the same malaise that has often befallen the Razorbacks: legitimately awful free throw shooting, especially from senior Derek Ogbeide (2 for 11 at the stripe even though he came into the game shooting an at least passable 65 percent), was ultimately fatal to the Dawgs, who owned the rebounding advantage and foul disparity all night.

The Hogs were shockingly resilient. Gafford has zero field goal attempts through the first 25 minutes, a bizarre and inexcusable distinction, but ended up with 11 points, most of which came during a critical juncture of the second half when the Razorbacks were able to slowly build a lead over the visitors from Athens. It was Jones, however, that really buoyed the Hogs with a crisp and steady 23-point performance that also featured six rebounds and four assists. Harris continues to be a mediocre perimeter scorer but he factored heavily in the win with 13 points, and slumping Adrio Bailey combined with his backup, Reggie Chaney, for 14 points and eight boards, which is substantial collective production from the four position.

Arkansas led almost the entire second half and that lead waxed and waned for a good stretch before the Hogs ended the game on an 18-8 run after William Jackson’s three tied the score at 52 with just over six minutes left. The Razorback defense was strong again, limiting Georgia to a woeful 29 percent shooting clip from the floor, helping to offset the Bulldogs’ astonishing 56-32 advantage on the boards. Gafford again spent too much time early in the game disengaged because the offensive scheme strangely has him setting high screens and playing way too far away from the basket generally. He’s such a potentially dominating interior presence that the team’s inability to truly make him the focal point of the offense is frustrating.

But the 70-60 win got the Hogs to 12-8 overall and 3-4 in conference play. They’ve beaten three of the league’s worst teams, though, and the road ahead is fairly rigorous: there’s a road rematch with the now-ranked LSU Tigers on Saturday, followed by a quick home tilt on Tuesday against a struggling Vanderbilt team, and then a road game at Columbia, South Carolina, which promises to be challenging despite the Gamecocks’ pedestrian first two-thirds of the season.

Anderson’s still, in the humble opinion of Pearls, coaching for his short- and long-term job security. He remains upbeat about his young team’s future, but a lot of tough games are on the schedule yet, and this team really doesn’t have a signature win to speak of. If the Hogs want to fight for a postseason bid at all, there will simply have to be more consistency from the team’s best players down the stretch. That is an awful lot to ask from a collection of underclassmen.
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