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Hope and despair 

The weekend before Thanksgiving brought Arkansas Razorback athletics more despair on the gridiron and hope on the hardwood. We'll take what we can in this trying 2018, eh?

On Saturday, the football Hogs were stunted by the Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville. The first half was looking like it would play out as a massive rout, but Arkansas, as it did against LSU, survived a punchless first quarter and built some mild momentum at the end of the half when Connor Limpert, who had uncharacteristically hooked a field goal try earlier, got the Hogs on the board with a three-pointer to narrow the margin to 17-3 at the break. With the Razorbacks getting the opening possession of the second half, it certainly appeared that Arkansas was in line to forge a bit of a comeback after breaking through.

And that opening drive was going splendidly all the way up to the point when LaMichael Pettway was flagged for offensive pass interference on a play that would have set the Hogs up inside the Mississippi State five-yard line. Instead the rarely flagged infraction — and let's be real here, in this case it was an arguable non-call — pushed Arkansas back, Limpert made another mid-range field goal, and the Bulldogs turned angry from there. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, objectively a bad passer thus far in his senior year, overcame some off-target tosses earlier in the game and threw four TDs in his swan song at Starkville, and within the blink of an eye the final was 52-6, by far the worst performance in a season filled with bad games.

It certainly doesn't augur well for the finale at Missouri, which earned its seventh win by routing Tennessee and again is closing the year strong after a rough start in SEC play. Worse yet, after Kelly Bryant had visited Fayetteville earlier and seemed to be a possible incoming transfer after the Hogs routed Tulsa on homecoming, the former Clemson quarterback got to see a very ugly side of the state of Arkansas football in his official visit to Mississippi State. It may have been a devastating loss if it convinces Bryant to join a more stable, consistently winning program rather that come to Fayetteville.

At least things turned around for Hog fans quickly, though. The basketball teams were locked in nip-and-tuck battles in the new Hardwood Showcase on Sunday, and the men came away with a nail-biter against formerly unbeaten Indiana, 73-72. Later that night, the women took the floor against Top 25 Arizona State, and Mike Neighbors' young but rapidly improving group acquitted itself well in a narrow, 88-85 loss, which was tough to swallow but representative of the program's ascent since the Greenwood native was charged with pulling it out of a lengthy and erratic run under multiple coaches since Gary Blair left for Texas A&M many moons ago.

Mike Anderson's group had sustained such a painful opening-game defeat, surrendering a tying three to Texas and succumbing in overtime, that it was hard to fathom how the Hogs would fare against the Hoosiers, who are in their second season under Archie Miller. It was an impressive and resilient effort at both ends for Daniel Gafford, who despite again having free throw struggles, displayed his otherworldly skills with a 12-for-15 performance from the floor that included the usual array of dunks but also demonstrated his midrange shooting touch and his improving stamina and foul awareness en route to a career-high 27 points. He was backed by Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones again, both in double digits, and the latter of whom was fouled on a rebound attempt under the Indy basket with 2.5 seconds left. He made the critical go-ahead free throw and then purposely and perfectly clanked the second one, forcing the Hoosiers to corral the rebound and attempt a nearly full-court heave that was well wide of the mark.

Anderson's team has a busy week ahead with games bracketing Thanksgiving Day against Montana State and UT-Arlington. This win largely offset the disappointment lingering from the Texas defeat, and set the team up for a positive stretch ahead.

Meanwhile, Neighbors' squad, trounced by the Sun Devils so badly a year ago in a trip to Tempe, had a genuine and completely acceptable "moral victory." Alexis Tolefree continued a strong start with 22 points and Chelsea Dungee had 20. Impressively, after the nip-and-tuck nature of the first half appeared to be waning after halftime when the visitors built a short double-digit lead, the Hogs fought back to make it one-possession game in the end.

Neighbors has had to inherit a group light on depth and augment it. And as with Morris, he's managed to excel on the recruiting side, which is a considerable accomplishment in itself given the shape of things. But it would appear he's got a team that is poised and able to make big strides in the affable coach's second year, and Morris assuredly will want to see his 2019 group to mirror that advancement.

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