Bob Holt is a sports reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he sits on the board of directors for the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. He has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year four times and has been inducted to the Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame.
Nick of time: Smith shoots Hogs to Friday at SEC Tournament
Arkansas guard Nick Smith is shown during a game against Auburn at the SEC Tournament on Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — North Little Rock High School hit the game-winning shot against Little Rock Parkview on Thursday night.
OK, technically it was Arkansas that beat Auburn 76-73 at Bridgestone Arena in the SEC Tournament.
But Arkansas guard Nick Smith, who is from Jacksonville and played at North Little Rock, hit a 15-foot jumper that put the Razorbacks ahead to stay, 74-73, with 20 seconds left after Allen Flanigan — Auburn’s senior guard from Parkview — banked in a driving basket with 43.2 seconds to play.
After Arkansas junior guard Davonte Davis stole the ball from Wendell Green and hit two free throws with 11 seconds left to make it 76-73, Green missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.
Arkansas (20-12) broke a three-game losing streak, bolstered its NCAA Tournament resume and advanced to play No. 18-ranked Texas A&M (23-8) at 6 tonight in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
More from WholeHogSports: How to watch, listen to Arkansas vs. Texas A&M
Auburn (20-12) led for only 42 seconds of the game, but the Razorbacks needed a clutch shot from Smith to respond to Flanigan’s basket that put the Tigers ahead for the first time since 2-0.
Smith — a projected NBA Draft lottery pick who missed 19 games this season with a right knee issue — didn’t hesitate with the game on the line and hit a jumper over Flanigan.
“The biggest thing in basketball is when your play dies, who can go manufacture their own shot?” Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said. “Obviously for us in the past it’s been Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe, JD Notae, guys like that.
“We have missed Nick in that exact type of situation.
“Nick read the defense well, was really aggressive as well. He wanted the ball in his hands.
“I thought our guys did a good job of finding him and not rushing a shot. … For a freshman to make that shot in an SEC Tournament game, that’s a big shot.
Smith, who didn’t play when Auburn beat Arkansas 72-59 on Jan. 7, scored 14 points and hit 6 of 12 shots.
“My team believed in me to shoot the pull-up jump shot,” Smith said on the SEC Network of his game winner. “I made it, so that was game.”
Well, not quite.
The Tigers still had 16 seconds to try to get the lead back or send the game into overtime.
K.D. Johnson, who led Auburn with 20 points off the bench, tried to go for a quick driving basket, but couldn’t find an opening guarded by Davis.
“I thought if I could get the ball to K.D., get him down quickly, we’d take the two,” Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said. “But they did a good job of walling him off.”
Pearl called a timeout with 3.5 seconds left to set up a play for a three-point shot.
“We got a good look,” he said.
Green got off a shot that bounced off the rim as the Razorbacks held on to win.
Davis credited Smith with good defense on the final play.
“On the last shot by Green, it was pretty open,” said Davis, who had 7 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists. “It was a good play actually. But luckily Nick closed out.
“We practiced on that. I think he did a pretty good job on closing out, contesting the shot, made it go short.
“I think he did two great plays on the offensive end and defensive end.”
Smith, who has averaged 20.2 points in the last five, was the logical choice to take the shot after Auburn rallied from a 15-point deficit. He shot 1 of 3 in the first half when the Razorbacks took a 37-33 lead.
“Early in the game Nick wasn’t really scoring like he usually does,” said Arkansas freshman guard Anthony Black, who had 19 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. “We were telling him to keep going, second half they’re going to drop.
“We trust in him. He’s one of the best scorers in college. He made a good move and made a big shot.”
Razorbacks freshman forward Jordan Walsh, who had 11 points off the bench, said it was no surprise Smith came through at the end.
“Y’all know who Nick is. You know Nick does stuff like that,” Walsh said. “He’s our scorer. He’s going to help us win no matter what.
“He knew it was March. He knew what time it was. He knew we needed a bucket.
“He stepped back, hit it in a dude’s face, and we knew it was good.”
Arkansas opened the second half by outscoring Auburn, including six points by Black, to move ahead 54-39 with 14:04 left.
Senior forward Kamani Johnson, making his fourth start of the season and first since Jan. 21 against Ole Miss, had four points in the run on layups with assists from Smith and Black.
Auburn scored six consecutive points on three fast-break layups — two by Johnson and one by Flanigan — with the help of two Arkansas turnovers to pull within 54-45 with 13:13 left.
After Walsh hit a layup for a 59-46 Arkansas lead, the Tigers had a 9-0 run with Johnson scoring all of the points — including two free throws after Kamani Johnson was called for a technical foul — to cut their deficit to 59-55 with 9:14 left.
When senior forward Makhi Mitchell scored on a layup for a 70-63 Arkansas lead with 4:31 left, it looked like the Razorbacks might be pulling away again.
Arkansas then had three of its 19 turnovers and the Tigers took advantage and grabbed the lead.
Then Smith won it.
“We know Nick can make tough shots like that,” Davis said. “He’s a scorer. We believe in him in situations like that.”
Davis is from Jacksonville and knows Smith and Flanigan well.
“We all grew up playing against each other or with each other,” Davis said. “Seeing the transition from high school to now, we’ve all gotten better.
“Meeting here on a big stage like the SEC Tournament makes it even more enjoyable. “
For Smith and Davis and the Razorbacks, it was a little more enjoyable than for Flanigan and the Tigers.
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