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Hog basketball purgatory 

The hardwood Hogs’ six-game losing streak reached its paradoxical high and low of the entire season in the span of a single half against Kentucky in Rupp Arena.

click to enlarge BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
As the Arkansas baseball program starts its potential march back to the sport’s curious Xanadu of Omaha, Neb., a basketball program sits in shambles.

The hardwood Hogs’ six-game losing streak reached its paradoxical high and low of the entire season in the span of a single half against Kentucky in Rupp Arena. Playing with good pace and composure in the first half — and, let’s be clear, actually taking and making intelligent, open shots helps — Arkansas not only competed with the No. 4 Wildcats in the SEC’s single most feared venue, the Razorbacks built a double-digit first-half lead, and then as the second half opened, pushed that 11-point margin to 15 when Desi Sills stroked a three-pointer from the wing after a couple of minutes of play.

This was the point where everyone who has watched this team for any consequential period this year got antsy, excited and a bit annoyed all at once. That first emotion is just natural when you’re playing a highly rated foe on the road and you’ve managed to sneak up on them to the tune of a comfortable, but never-quite-safe lead. The second one? Well, for as much as we’ve lamented the Hogs’ failings this year, if this 14-13 bunch, coming off its worst showing of the year in a drubbing at Auburn, could somehow beat both LSU and Kentucky away from home this year, then that would be quite a feat. And of course that last feeling of annoyance coincides with the fact that here you have a team that yields massive runs to the opponent, game after game and has lost a lot of close ones this year due to late-game mismanagement. Who wouldn’t be irritated that this group, out of all of them, would manage to win those kinds of games in a year where those victories will essentially have no consequence?

Of course, Arkansas did its by-damned best to encapsulate the Mike Anderson era in a matter of a couple of hours. One, the Hogs played with heart and effort, if not always intelligently, and for a bunch of guys who genuinely are wet behind the proverbial ears, they were fearless in a place where even salty teams wilt. Two, despite getting hammered on the boards and bricking free throws at all the worst possible times — again, staples of this era — the Razorbacks still managed to be in striking distance of a powerful opponent in the final moments. Three, and most damningly, bad officiating at the most inconvenient of occasions intervened, too, and guess what? The Hogs’ sideline general still can’t get worked up enough at these junctures to let the refs know what a travesty they’re propagating.

In the matter of the literal final three seconds of this game, the officiating crew that had already called the game in a typically home-cooked fashion got downright brazen. Trailing 68-66, Arkansas had blown a chance at a rebound putback when Jalen Harris, in what can only be characterized as a mental breakdown, rifled his second free throw so hard off the backboard that it came nowhere near hitting the rim, resulting in a dead-ball inbounds play for Kentucky. Two things of immediate note: the inbounding player has to stay within this mythical, three-feet-or-so “box” and can’t run the baseline looking for a cutting player, and with three seconds left, Arkansas could only afford to gamble on defense and try to secure a steal.

At the risk of bitching about something that’s been going on in this conference ever since there was a curious and decisive foul call that went against the Hogs at Coleman Coliseum more than a quarter-century ago, Arkansas got knifed in the gut a lot by its own hand — four late missed free throws were no doubt a culprit in the 70-66 loss — but the added missteps by the referees in the late going couldn’t be ignored. Ashton Hagans not only walked well outside the permitted space while looking for an open recipient on the inbound, the Hogs’ Mason Jones made a great bid to snatch away the errant pass for Keldon Johnson, but the ball actually appeared to deflect off Johnson last, and went to a fruitless review where a few men were scared out of their wits to reverse the initial call in Kentucky’s favor. Oh, and there was a blatant elbowing of Isaiah Joe that went unnoticed.

So Kentucky reaped those benefits. The lengthy review went against the Hogs and the Wildcats drained free throws to seal the victory. Anderson, for his part, seemed to seethe a little and then noted in his postgame talk that the 32-15 free throw disparity against his club was a little hard to fathom. Yet, that was it.

Nolan Richardson’s most famous coaching moment happened in Austin, Texas, a good three decades ago when he stalked off the court in a memorable display of what some would call petulance and what others would call bravado. That’s the line you walked with him: Sometimes he’d get fired up to the point of diminishing returns, but Nolan always seemed ready to defend his charges at all costs. At that point, the game in hand and the season going down the tubes, Anderson could’ve at least made a spectacular exit courtesy of those selfsame referees by losing his cool and getting T’d up.

Instead, it all just ended as so many games have this season: with the Hogs yielding an essentially decisive second-half run, flopping at the free throw line at all the wrong moments, and at the sheer mercy of a biased set of officials. Nothing Arkansas did worked, and Lord knows if the things that could’ve been done by the coaching staff would have mattered, but it felt so anticlimactic and tired to see the weary, proud team walk off the court with another narrow, and imminently avoidable, loss.

With a big tribute for the 25th anniversary of the championship season slated for the Ole Miss game Saturday, what does Hunter Yurachek do with this program now? It’s in the same purgatory that the football program seems to steadily reside within, and a coaching change may not fix the problems, but is THIS worth holding onto for another year? As the program rejoices in its legacy this weekend, it also faces a wholly uncertain future, and not many people who were glued to their TVs in the spring of 1994 are still remotely invested the same way. Maybe at least this weekend we’ll be reminded of what mystique used to attach to Bud Walton Arena, “Hawgball,” and those 40 Minutes of Hell we could once thump our chests over, but it’ll be confined to ceremonial moments in and around the competition rather than in the game itself.
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