Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
It's NITpicking time
SEC loss likely costs UA shot at NCAA
Arkansas' Bobby Portis (left) and Anthlon Bell leave the court after their loss to South Carolina on Thursday, March 13, 2014, following an SEC Tournament game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
ATLANTA - It doesn’t matter where the SEC Tournament is held or who Arkansas plays. The Razorbacks can’t win a game.
South Carolina handed the Razorbacks their sixth consecutive opening-game loss in the SEC Tournament - and likely knocked them out of the NCAA Tournament - by beating Arkansas 71-69 on Thursday before an announced crowd of 9,308 in the Georgia Dome.
“The key is getting past the first game,” said Mike Anderson, who is 0-3 as Arkansas’ coach in SEC Tournament games. “No matter how you do it - one point, two points - we were right there.Unfortunately, we just didn’t make it happen.”
South Carolina (14-19) advanced to play Tennessee in today’s quarterfinals.
Arkansas (21-11) is headed home to await a postseason call, which most likely will come from the NIT.
“We’re in the hunt for something,” Anderson said. “I don’t know what. Like all teams, we want to play in the NCAA [Tournament].”
The Razorbacks’ losing streak in SEC Tournament openers has come against six different teams - Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, LSU and Vanderbilt along with South Carolina - in Tampa, Fla., Nashville, Tenn., Atlanta and New Orleans. They’ve lost twice in Nashville and Atlanta.
Three Arkansas seniors - guards Mardracus Wade, Kikko Haydar and Rickey Scott - played on teams thatwere 0-4 in SEC Tournament games.
“It’s just tough, being here for four years and never made it through the first game,” Wade said. “It’s just really heartbreaking.”
Arkansas had two shots at game-winning baskets in the final five seconds, but both went off the rim.
Freshman forward Bobby Portis missed a shot in the lane with five seconds left and the Gamecocks leading 70-69 after the Razorbacks had worked the ball around the perimeter.
“I got a great look with my jump hook, but it didn’t go down for me,” Portis said. “Unfortunately, I shot it too hard and it went to the left.”
Arkansas forward Michael Qualls then fouled South Carolina forward Michael Carrera with 2.9 seconds left. Carrera missed his first free throw, then after a timeout made the second to put the Gamecocks ahead 71-69.
Razorbacks junior guard Ky Madden took the inbound pass and drove over half court and fired up a 40-foot attempt that went off the back of the rim as the game ended.
“It felt good,” Madden said. “It looked good, too, but I just missed it. It was a straight look. It’s a shot you’ve got to make.”
There were 21 lead changes in the game, the last coming when South Carolina senior guard Brenton Williams made 1 of 2 free throws with 53 seconds left to put the Gamecocks ahead 70-69.
Madden missed on a driving attempt with 35 seconds left and the ball went out of bounds off of Arkansas, giving South Carolina possession.
Razorbacks guard Fred Gulley fouled out and sent Sindarius Thornwell to the free-throw line with 20.8 seconds left. Thornwell missed both free throws and Arkansas grabbed the rebound and called timeout with 16.2 seconds left, setting up the play that got the ball to Portis inside.
Arkansas didn’t score in the final 2:17 after Qualls hit a layup to put the Razorbacks ahead 69-66.
“We came up with the stops and rebounds in the last minute and a half of the game,” South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said. “That’s something that we preach and preach and preach, that you’ve got to win throughyour defense.”
Anderson preaches defense first to the Razorbacks, too, but they struggled with the rebounding part of finishing off stops.
South Carolina shot 38.3 percent from the field (18 of 47) but outrebounded the Razorbacks 40-26. The Gamecocks’ 15 offensive rebounds helped them keep alive possessions and hit 30 of 41 free throws compared to 20 of 26 by Arkansas.
“They were just more physical on the rebounding,” said senior forward Coty Clarke, who led the Razorbacks with 13 points, 5 rebounds and 3 steals. “We didn’t have a lot of bodies in there. I think they were getting five guys in and we had three going for the boards, or two.
“The game is won in the paint. When they have 40 rebounds and we have 24, I mean, you should lose.”
Arkansas came into the game with a minus-7.6 rebounding margin against SEC teams.
“That’s been our weakness, and we’ve been getting by with it,” Clarke said. “It caught up with us today.”
Thornwell, a 6-5 freshman, led South Carolina with 17 points and hit 3 of 4 three-pointers. Center Laimonas Chatkevicius, a 6-11 sophomore, had a career-high 16 points and seven rebounds. He hit 8 of 10 free throws. Freshman guard Duane Notice added 11 points.
Madden and Portis scored 11 points each and Qualls had 10.
Portis, who came into the game averaging 6.6 rebounds, had three rebounds. He waslimited to 22 minutes because of foul problems. He drew his fourth foul with 10:34 left and went to the bench for nearly five minutes before returning with 5:49 left.
“I came out kind of soft on the glass,” Portis said. “I was in foul trouble most of the game, so I couldn’t be there to help my team. But, still, that isn’t an excuse for me. I guess I just got outtoughed.”
Qualls said the Razorbacks didn’t play their aggressive style of basketball well enough.
“We just got outhustled,” he said. “I don’t know if it was a hangover from the last game or what.”
Arkansas ended the regular season with an 83-58 loss at Alabama last Saturday to end a six-game winning streak - the Razorbacks’ longest in the SEC season since 1998.
The Razorbacks held a players’ only meeting Tuesday before leaving Fayetteville for the SEC Tournament in order to get refocused, but they weren’t able to rebound from the Alabama loss mentally or physically.
“I was very disappointed with how we came out, and then we didn’t do a good job of finishing the game,” Anderson said. “Give South Carolina credit. I thought they were in more of a game mode than we were.”
Anderson said the game came down to toughness and rebounding, with South Carolina holding the edge in both.
“Today it was just who wanted it more,” Clarke said. “They had 40 rebounds and shot 41 free throws. We had 24 rebounds and shot 26 free throws. So there’s your game right there.
“It speaks for itself.”
Sports, Pages 19 on 03/14/2014