Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Razorbacks down Auburn at SEC Tournament
Arkansas guard Ricky Council IV (1) dunks on Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament, Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.(AP Photo/John Amis)
Arkansas is moving on at the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Nick Smith’s base-line jumper with 20.4 seconds remaining was the game winner for the 10th-seeded Razorbacks, who defeated seventh-seeded Auburn 76-73 on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
Arkansas (20-12) advanced to play second-seeded Texas A&M on Friday at 6 p.m. in the tournament quarterfinals. The Razorbacks and the Aggies split two games during the regular season, with each team winning its home game.
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Arkansas notched an important victory toward its NCAA Tournament resume Thursday. The Razorbacks were projected to make the NCAA field by ESPN before the game, but entered on a three-game losing streak to Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Auburn (20-12) trailed by as many as 15 points in the second half, but battled back to take a 73-72 lead on Little Rock-native Allen Flanigan’s floater with 43.2 seconds to play.
Smith responded with the go-ahead shot on the Razorbacks’ ensuing possession, then Arkansas guard Davonte Davis stole a pass and hit two free throws with 12.6 seconds remaining to give the Razorbacks a 76-73 lead.
"Nick read the defense well, was really aggressive," Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. "He wanted the ball in his hands. I thought our guys did a good job of finding him and not rushing a shot. We rushed a shot about a minute-and-a-half before that.
"For a freshman to make that shot in an SEC Tournament game, that's a big shot."
Auburn was forced to call a timeout with 3.7 seconds remaining when K.D. Johnson was unable to get off a three-point shot against Arkansas guard Ricky Council. Wendell Green’s three-pointer out of the timeout was no good off the front of the rim.
Smith and classmates Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh combined to score 44 points in arguably the best collective performance by the trio of 2022 McDonald’s All-Americans.
Black led Arkansas with 19 points and added 6 rebounds and 6 assists in his second strong performance against the Tigers (20-12). Black scored 23 points — tied for his high against a conference opponent — when the Razorbacks lost 72-59 at Auburn on Jan. 7.
Smith did not play in the first game between the teams. He scored 14 points Thursday.
"We trust in him," Black said of Smith. "He's one of the best scorers in college. He made a good move and made a big shot."
Arkansas controlled matchup almost from the opening tipoff. The Razorbacks trailed for only 40 seconds of game time, led 10-2 at the first media timeout and led by as many as 10 points in the first half.
Walsh was key to the early surge with three second-chance put backs, plus a defensive rebound and assist on a highlight-reel dunk by Ricky Council in transition. Arkansas scored 26 points before halftime on layups and dunks.
"I think physically they bothered us with their athleticism and their length," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. "As a result, we got dominated on the boards, which made it really difficult for us to win the basketball game."
The Razorbacks out-rebounded the Tigers 19-7 in the first half and 37-19 overall. Arkansas had a season-high 18 second-chance points on 13 offensive rebounds.
"We felt rebounding, especially defensive rebounding, would be the key to the win," Musselman said.
VIDEO: Musselman, players recap 76-73 win over Auburn
Walsh scored nine first-half points before he was slowed with an apparent back injury. He finished with 11 points and four rebounds.
"His minutes were incredible," Musselman said.
The Tigers closed the first half on a 6-0 run to cut the deficit to 37-33 at halftime.
Black and Smith combined to score 13 points as part of a 19-6 run by Arkansas to open the second half. The Razorbacks scored on their first five second-half possessions and led 54-39 on Black’s second-chance basket at the rim with 14:05 to play.
Aided by Arkansas turnovers, Auburn chipped away at the lead from there. The Tigers cut the deficit to 70-69 when West Memphis native Chris Moore made the first of two free throws with 2:47 remaining, then took the lead with a 4-0 run that included jumpers by Jaylin Willians and Flanigan.
Johnson scored 20 points to lead Auburn, followed by Flanigan with 15.
Makhi Mitchell scored 12 points and has six rebounds for Arkansas. Davis, the guard, had a game-high 10 rebounds.
The Razorbacks improved to 4-2 at the SEC Tournament under coach Eric Musselman. They have won at least one game at the tournament in each of Musselman’s four seasons.
Thursday’s game was the second between Arkansas and Auburn at the SEC Tournament. The Razorbacks won 75-67 in the championship game of the 2000 tournament in Atlanta.
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