Youth served: Young Hogs hold their own with Aggies

By: Bob Holt
Published: Monday, January 7, 2019
Arkansas guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson (11) speaks with head coach Mike Anderson as officials review a play in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas A&M, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, in College Station, Texas. (Laura McKenzie/College Station Eagle via AP)
Arkansas guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson (11) speaks with head coach Mike Anderson as officials review a play in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas A&M, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, in College Station, Texas. (Laura McKenzie/College Station Eagle via AP)

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- University of Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson's basketball team has opened SEC play at Texas A&M so often he figures the matchup should have a name.

Saturday's game at Reed Arena marked the fourth time in seven seasons the Razorbacks have opened SEC play on the road against the Aggies -- who like the Razorbacks used to be in the Southwest Conference.

"Maybe it's the old Southwest Conference Classic or something," Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said in his postgame news conference, drawing laughs. "I don't know. I've got to talk to the SEC about that one.

"It just seems like there's an annual deal. But I thought it was a good game for the fans. It went down to the wire."

The Razorbacks (10-3, 1-0) hung on to beat Texas A&M 73-71 after losing their previous three SEC openers at Reed Arena by an average of 19 points.

"It's the first SEC win with almost a brand-new team," Anderson said. "I think that speaks volumes about our guys and our coaching staff."

Arkansas doesn't have a senior on a roster with nine newcomers and is depending heavily on freshmen and sophomores. The Razorbacks played seven newcomers at Texas A&M.

Texas A&M is playing one senior -- graduate transfer forward Christian Mekowlulu -- with the loss of guard Admon Gilder because of a blot clot in his right arm. Eight Aggies who played against Arkansas are newcomers or sophomores.

"Arkansas is very similar to us," Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said. "You've got two young teams trying to figure out how to win."

The Razorbacks have been getting some good on-the-job training with a 3-3 record in games decided by four or fewer points.

Arkansas beat Indiana, Texas State and Texas A&M by a combined seven points and lost to Texas in overtime and to Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech by a combined seven points.

The Razorbacks' victories over Texas-San Antonio 79-67 and Austin Peay 76-65 were closer than the final margins suggest considering the Razorbacks led the Roadrunners 64-62 with 2:23 left and led the Governors 68-62 with 2:23 left.

Up next

Arkansas men vs. Florida

WHEN 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE Walton Arena, Fayetteville

RECORDS Arkansas 10-3, 1-0 SEC; Florida 9-4, 0-1.

SERIES Florida leads 23-12

TELEVISION SEC Network

RADIO Razorback Sports Network

"We've been in tight games all season," Anderson said. "You want to create a habit of winning and finding ways to win. We found a different way to win [at Texas A&M]."

The Razorbacks rallied to beat the Aggies with 6-11 sophomore Daniel Gafford -- who came into the game averaging 17.5 points and 9.3 rebounds -- on the bench for all but 57.7 seconds of the final 6:40 after he was called for his fourth foul.

Gabe Osabuohien, a 6-8 sophomore, replaced Gafford and had four rebounds and an assist on a three-point basket by Mason Jones in a 4:59 span to help the Razorbacks overcome a 55-53 deficit and go ahead 69-61 on sophomore point guard Jalen Harris' layup with 1:34 left.

"It was crunch time, and Gabe was out there making crunch-time plays," Anderson said.

Jones, a sophomore guard, and Harris and freshman guards Isaiah Joe and Desi Sills combined to score the Razorbacks' final 20 points. The four finished with 49 points: 15 from Harris, a season-high 14 from Sills, 11 from Joe and 9 from Jones.

"They've got good perimeter depth," Kennedy said. "I thought that was a big factor."

Harris, Jones, Joe, Osabuohien and junior forward Adrio Bailey were on the court for the Razorbacks for most of the final 6:40.

"That group was playing well," Anderson said. "We've got other pieces to this team besides Daniel, and those guys can go in there and play.

"There are going to be some other games where Daniel's in foul trouble. Who are the guys that going to step up? We're finding that out right now."

Gafford had 11 points and 11 rebounds in 25 minutes in a game that had 16 lead changes and was tied 11 times.

"A big part of the game plan was to stop Gafford," said Aggies sophomore forward Savion Flagg, who had 20 points and 15 rebounds. "Well, not stop him, but slow him down, because he's going to get his."

For a change Gafford's points weren't among the top two scorers for the Razorbacks. He has led the team in scoring in four games -- with a career-high 27 points against Indiana -- and been the No. 2 scorer in six games.

"We've got multiple players that come that can give us big numbers," Gafford said.

Jones broke out from a 1-of-17 shooting slump -- including 0 of 7 to start against Texas A&M -- by hitting three consecutive three-pointers for a 65-59 lead with 3:23 left.

"Mason came on at the right time," Gafford said. "Because without Mason, we probably would have lost the ballgame."

Harris had nine assists without a turnover in 36 minutes and was credited by Kennedy for repeatedly breaking down the Aggies' defense.

"I thought Jalen Harris did a really good job and gave us problems off the dribble," Kennedy said. "We were having to rotate and help on Harris so much."

Anderson would have preferred to give Harris a little more rest.

"He played a lot of minutes, but in the SEC, that's what happens," Anderson said. "You've got to do what it takes to win."

The Razorbacks play Florida (9-4, 0-1) on Wednesday night in Walton Arena.

"It feels great to be 1-0 in the conference, but we've got a long road ahead of us and we've got a lot more games to play," Gafford said. 'We've just got to be ready for every game."

The Razorbacks were picked to finish 10th in the SEC in the preseason poll. For one game at least, they're tied for first.

"Everybody was counting us out, saying we're a young team and we may get one or two wins in the SEC," Harris said. "Getting our first win under our belt -- and it's on the road -- is pretty big."

As Anderson likes to say, the games will keep getting bigger.

"Enjoy it until midnight," Anderson said of winning at Texas A&M. "We've got Florida coming in. That's what I told our guys.

"Every game's a big game for this young team. We've just got to hopefully learn and continue to grow."

Sports on 01/07/2019

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