FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas’ unbelievable 11-game SEC men’s basketball winning streak extended with more hardship than any would have believed Saturday at Walton Arena.
Against a Texas A&M Aggies team now 8-9 overall, 2-8 in the SEC and in last Wednesday’s home loss to Mississippi State playing its first game since Jan. 30 because of covid-19 positive tests and contact tracing, the nationally No. 12 Razorbacks, trailed A&M by 14 during the first half and lagged, 76-74 with 2:10 left in the game before prevailing, 87-80.
It marked the regular season finale for both teams with Coach Eric Musselman’s SEC second-place Razorbacks earning the double bye second-seed into Friday’s quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament in Nashville, Tenn. against Thursday’s winner between Missouri and Georgia.
Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, the 13-team tournament’s 13th and 12th seeds, open the tournament Wednesday night at Bridgestone Arena.
“I’m proud that we won a game that we did not play well,” Musselman said. “To win this many games in a row … there’s a reason that a lot of teams don’t do it. Because it’s really hard.”
And inspired Aggies “playing great,” Musselman said made it really, really hard.
To win at home over next week’s lowest seed and match Nolan Richardson’s 1994 national champion Razorbacks’ 11-game winning streak, Saturday’s Hogs had to force 11 second-half A&M turnovers. They included Davonte “Devo” Davis’ inbounds steal with 48 seconds left and breakaway feed to Justin Smith for what prove an uncatchable 81-78 lead at :41 after what Musselman called “an incredible” shot-block by Arkansas guard Moses Moody denying Quenton Jackson the dunk that would have put the Aggies up, 78-76 with 1:30 left.
“If he would’ve dunked on me then momentum would have shifted tremendously,’ Moody said. “So I had to get it. That was just one of the plays I knew would alter the outcome of the game.”’
Following the Davis steal (“I thought Devo’s stagger jump was huge,” Musselman said) and Smith basket, Arkansas guard JD Notae rebounded a Quenton Jackson miss and started sealing the deal with free throws.
The deal appeared on the way to being sealed with Arkansas, finally realizing that the normally methodical, take the air out of the ball Aggies came to Walton planning to run with the Razorbacks and shoot threes (A&M nailed 7 of 15 first-half treys) , cutting A&M’s 14-point lead to 41-38 at intermission.
“They played a lot faster than I thought they would,” Moody said. “They did play the zone the whole game and slowed down the game from that part, but they scored a lot more than usual. They were just hitting a lot of shots they usually don’t hit. They gave us their best shot in the first half. We just took that and redistributed it in the second half.”
Arkansas sizzled shooting 18 for 30 in the second half. For the game, Moody’s 28 points led all scorers. Point guard Jalen Tate coming off a subpar game in Arkansas’ last Tuesday triumph at South Carolina, excelled Saturday. Tate scored 22 points with seven rebounds and four assists and one turnover in 36:44.
Freshman Davis of Jacksonville scored 12 points with six boards, five assists and two steals. Notae hit 6 of 6 of Arkansas’ 16 of 20 free throws.
Forward Justin Smith, playing all 40 minutes with backup big man Jaylin Williams absent again apparently because of covid-19 protocol, scored 11 points with four rebounds.
The Aggies derived big 23-point games from Jackson and forward Emanuel Miller (Miller carried the Aggies the final 20 minutes with 21 second-half points and double-doubling with 10 rebounds for the game, while fellow Aggies forward Savion Flagg scored 16 points with five boards.
Even with Arkansas reasserting itself with an early-second half lead, the Aggies wouldn’t fade. They resumed a 9-point lead before Arkansas finally caught up on both ends of the floor.
“You want them to play at a high, high level all game,” Musselman said. “But I did think we turned it up that last minute-and-a-half, especially from a defensive standpoint.”
Musselman gives them Sunday completely to unwind.
“Nobody needs to see each other,” Musselman said. “We need to take a quick 24-hour break and then we’ll do what we’ve done in the past which means we’ll start getting ready for two ( Missouri or Georgia) teams that are next on the bracket for us.”