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 voter for the Biletnikoff Award.
Analyzing Arkansas' 73-66 loss to Kentucky
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman reacts during a game against Kentucky on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said in his press conference on Thursday previewing Saturday's game against No. 10 Kentucky that the Razorbacks would not be able to beat the Wildcats, even on their home floor, without bringing their A-game.
He was right.
Arkansas, playing in front of a rowdy sellout crowd, shot a season-low 33.3 percent from the floor and finished 8 of 26 from 3-point range in an emotional 73-66 loss to Kentucky, which played the final eight minutes, 19 seconds without coach John Calipari.
Junior guard Mason Jones was the lone Razorbacks player to reach double figures in scoring heading into the final minute of the game. He finished with a game-high 19 points prior to fouling out with 3:28 to go.
After falling behind by as many as 11 points early in the second half on Kentucky forward Nick Richards' turnaround jumper on the left block, the Razorbacks reeled off a 17-6 run to tie the game at 44-44 on two Jimmy Whitt free throws with 8:49 left.
Momentum, suddenly, was on Arkansas' side. And when Calipari was hit with a technical foul following an offensive foul on forward EJ Montgomery and ejected moments later for continuing to argue with officials, Bud Walton Arena ascended into a frenzy.
Jones then went on to knock down 3 of 4 technical free throws. The arena was at fever pitch, and Kentucky was on the verge of squandering a double-digit lead in the second half for the second time in as many games. The Wildcats saw a 14-point lead disappear on Wednesday at South Carolina as well, and the Gamecocks buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer to steal a win.
"We had the momentum during the dead ball, and after that it completely changed," said a frustrated Musselman, who did not look up from the table in the postgame interview room for the entirety of his nearly eight-minute press conference.
The 49-46 lead with seven-plus minutes remaining was as good as it got for Arkansas on Saturday. Kentucky responded in a big way following Calipari's departure and scored the next 15 points, leading by as many as 12 at two junctures down the stretch.
The Wildcats got contributions from five different players during their decisive run, including seven from Tyrese Maxey and a dagger 3-pointer by Immanuel Quickley that made it a 10-point game ahead of the final media timeout.
"That’s what great teams do, a top-10 team in the nation," Jones said. "We thought we got them rattled, but they weren’t rattled. We couldn’t sustain the lead.
"It wasn’t good enough today. We’ve got to go back to the drawing boards and get ready for Mississippi State."
A big factor in the game was Arkansas' free throw shooting. The Razorbacks entered play on Saturday No. 3 in the SEC in that regard, knocking down 77.3 percent of their attempts. Against Kentucky, Arkansas finished 20 of 30 at the line - 3 of 8 in the first half.
Adrio Bailey finished 1 of 6 and, Jones, previously 16 of 19 at the line in league play, went 8 of 12. Interestingly enough, Kentucky's opponents have made just 64.7 percent of their free throws this season. That number dips to 62.5 percent in SEC action, the second-best mark in the league.
Jones noted that the missed opportunities at the line was a topic of conversation in the locker room after the game.
"We’ve been a good free-throw (shooting) team all year," he said. "We just, we blew it. It was on us. If you look at it, 3 and 5, that’s 8 points. We lost by 7. Me being one of the best free-throw shooters in the SEC, that’s unacceptable. Adrio going 1 for 6 is unacceptable.
"We've just got to live and learn."
Arkansas did receive complementary efforts on the perimeter from Jalen Harris and Desi Sills, who combined to hit 3 of 7 3-point attempts, but Isaiah Joe and Jimmy Whitt were held in check for the most part, scoring eight of their 27 combined points in the final minute.
Joe knocked down a pair of 3s in the first four minutes, helping the Razorbacks get off to a hot start offensively. His next bucket came with 2:29 to play. Joe went 31 minutes, 21 seconds on the floor between scores, missing all seven shots and all five 3-point attempts in that span.
Whitt, too, was coming off the best game of his Arkansas career on Wednesday, scoring 30 points in the win over Vanderbilt. He finished with 14 points on 3 of 9 shooting and 8 of 8 at the line. Eight of his points were scored in the last two minutes.
The length of Montgomery, who stands 6-10, had an impact on Whitt, who is typically solid in the mid-range area. He was 2 of 7 on those shots against the Wildcats.
"Just watching the film of him, he’s an excellent mid-range player at a time when guys aren’t putting a premium on mid-range," Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne said. "He’s probably one of the best mid-range players in the country. But by putting EJ and our 4-men on him, it caused him problems, their athleticism.
"That was a good way that we defended him.”
The loss certainly feels like a missed opportunity for the Razorbacks, who drop to 14-3 overall and 3-2 in SEC play heading into Mississippi State on Wednesday. With a win, Arkansas most likely would have joined the top 25 for the first time in more than two calendar years.
That feat, for now, is out of the question, and we will see what this group is made of in the coming weeks. The good news for the Razorbacks is two of their next three games are at home - TCU on Jan. 25, South Carolina on Jan. 29. Arkansas then opens February with three of four games on the road.
One of the team's mottos, according to Joe, is "we don't lose at home, and we don't lose two in a row." Kentucky took care of the former, and now it is up to the Razorbacks to rebound and prevent the latter from becoming a reality.
"We lost. We can't change the game," Jones said. "We've just got to be ready for Mississippi State. ... We're going to be ready for Mississippi State, we're going to continue to smile and have fun, but right now we're going to suck it in, take the loss and enjoy the ride."
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