Scottie Bordelon is a reporter for WholeHogSports.com. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, Bordelon previously covered high school sports for the Times Record in Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Springdale. He is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and Football Writers Association of America, and was awarded 2022 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Analyzing Arkansas' 69-66 win over Vanderbilt
Isaiah Joe, Arkansas guard, drives past Joe Toye of Vanderbilt Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Joe catches fire at right time
Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones opened Tuesday's game about as well as Mike Anderson or any Arkansas fan would have liked. One minute, 30 seconds had yet to come off the clock and the team's top 3-point shooters had already nailed two 3s and the Razorbacks appeared to be off to the start everyone had hoped for.
Then, Arkansas hit just 4 of its next 15 shots and found itself down 28-18 to the lone team in the SEC without a win in league play. The crowd in Bud Walton Arena was becoming antsy and a bit restless. Simply, this didn't resemble at all the team that had just gone to Baton Rouge and ended then-No. 19 LSU's 18-game home winning streak.
Following a Daniel Gafford dunk with 6:26 left in the first half, Arkansas did not make a shot for the next 3:35 before Joe went on one of his special, otherworldly shooting tears to get the Razorbacks back in the game and the crowd on its feet and at a fever pitch. The freshman knocked down four 3-pointers in a two minute, 25 second span to turn an eight-point Arkansas deficit to a one-point hole entering halftime.
Following the game, Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew labeled Joe "an elite shooter."
"He has such a soft touch, and he gets it off very quick," he said. "You see it on film and you try to stop it, but he makes it look easy and it’s not easy what he’s doing. He’s that good. He makes it look easy."
Joe finished the game with 18 points on 6-of-10 from 3-point range with 15 points coming in the first half. He entered Tuesday needing just 11 3-pointers to set the school's freshman record for 3-pointers in a season. Now, he's four 3s shy of tying Rotnei Clarke's record of 83 3-pointers made.
But aside from his second consecutive impressive shooting performance (10-of-18 from 3 last two games) following a 1-for-8 stretch against Texas Tech and Georgia, Joe finished the night with five assists as well. Joe hit his final 3-pointer early in the second half and didn't score again, but he said he wasn't itching for a shot after his string of triples in the first half.
He played to the flow of the game and it dictated that he find Gafford time and time again, who was again efficient at the rim. All five of Joe's assists - good for 11 points - went to Gafford.
"What was working was I was finding Dan and Dan got really hot," Joe said when asked if Vanderbilt made any adjustments to limit his perimeter looks after halftime. "You have to feed the hot hand in the second half and that’s what we did."
Gafford on a roll
Daniel Gafford made no bones about his play early in the win over Vanderbilt. He was out of sync. He said he tried his best to bring the mindset he had at LSU - 23 points on 11-of-15 shooting - but it wasn't working for him.
But, what had been his Achilles heel for a vast majority of the season brought him back to life. Gafford knocked down his free throws, finishing the night 10-of-12 at the line, his best night of the season from the stripe since hitting 9-of-10 in a win against Texas-Arlington in late November.
Gafford scored 16 of his game-high 28 points in the second half on 7-of-9 from the floor to go with six rebounds and three assists. Bryce Drew was so impressed with Gafford that he went on to say that the sophomore is undervalued on a national level.
"Obviously Gafford is one of the best bigs in the country," he said. "He is a great rim-protector, his offensive game has improved, his free throws were 10-of-12, which is way above his normal shooting percentage, so really credit him for carrying that load in the second half."
While Gafford shied away from saying he is playing his best basketball of the season over the last week, he has been a force around the rim in the Razorbacks' last two wins, scoring 51 points on 20-of-29 from the floor. He has also taken great advantage of the two teams in the league who struggle the most to defend the 2-point shot. LSU and Vanderbilt rank 13th and 14th in the SEC, respectively, in 2-point field goal defense, allowing teams to hit 53.9 and 54.7 percent of those looks in conference games.
"He’s just that good. If you go back and you look at our last game, Jeremiah Tilmon from Missouri hurts us with our lack of size in the paint," Drew said. "Big guys are giving us a lot of problems. That’s one thing that obviously we knew coming in and we tried to get the ball out of his hands, but sometimes he just goes over the top of us and there’s nothing we can do."
Embery-Simpson provides another lift
Entering February, Mike Anderson said he hoped this month would be the time when a guard like Keyshawn Embery-Simpson would settle in and be able to contribute in a positive way down the stretch.
And after hitting just 4-of-25 3-point attempts in the first month of the year, Embery-Simpson has already surpassed that perimeter output in two games in the second month of conference play. His one and only 3 of the game was far and away the biggest of his young Arkansas career.
His 3-pointer with 14 seconds left lifted the Razorbacks from what would have been a horrific loss at home. Coming out of a timeout with 33 seconds left, Embery-Simpson passed up the potential game-winner with 25 seconds to play and, after the ball was swung around the arc and into Gafford on the left block, Gafford hit the freshman with an on-the-money pass for the win.
"I just try to do anything to help my team win," Embery-Simpson said. "Anything we need. That’s what I do, shoot on the perimeter from outside. Whatever it takes to get the team a win.
"The shot clock was going down and I was like, ‘Hey, we gotta get it up.’ I was confident in me shooting it," he added. "I felt it coming off my hands and was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s gotta be good.’"
Embery-Simpson began SEC play by making just 1 of his first 12 3-pointers, then after hitting 2-of-5 from deep against Ole Miss in a 16-point performance, he made 1 of his next 8 3-pointers. But since the beginning of the month, he's 5-of-8 from distance and 8-of-14 shooting. The lift he's given the Razorbacks over the last two games cannot be understated.
"As soon as it left his hand, I knew it was going in," Joe said. "Keyshawn is a great shooter, and he's actually one of the best on the team, so I had faith that whoever took the shot that it was going in. It just so happened to be him, and I knew it was going in."
Plain and simple, Arkansas avoided what would have been the costliest loss of its season to date thanks to Embery-Simpson's clutch 3-pointer.
Already playing with fire in terms of being in the conversation for postseason play, the Razorbacks had to have this win to keep those hopes alive. They also could not afford to add another sketchy loss to its resume. While any win in conference play is a good win, it's also not a lot to brag about considering Vanderbilt is one of only two teams in a Power 5 conference without a win in league play (California - 0-9 in Pac-12).
Tuesday's game was played at Vanderbilt's pace, which is a bit of a puzzling trend with the Razorbacks in Bud Walton Arena this season. The 63 possessions played were by far the lowest in any game Arkansas has played this season. The next lowest figure is 68 in the loss to Texas Tech late last month.
The Commodores entered Tuesday playing the slowest pace in the league offensively. On average, their possessions last 19.2 seconds in conference play. Vanderbilt was able to dictate tempo and, for the most part, take care of the basketball, which limited Arkansas in transition. Outside of forward Simi Shittu's four turnovers, the rest of the Commodores combined for just 10.
It's more than fair to say that Arkansas is fortunate to have won its last two games. Without the late-game heroics from a pair of underclassmen, the Razorbacks would be sitting at six conference losses. But, give this young Arkansas team credit for rising to the occasion in crunch time and delivering two of the more memorable moments of the season.
Now winners of four consecutive games in SEC play, the Razorbacks hit the road for their next two games, where their mettle is sure to be tested once again.
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