Nate Allen Sports
If Saturday indeed marked Daniel Gafford’s last Walton Arena Razorbacks game, he made it a great one. Already doubling-doubling, 12 points and 11 rebounds, with time to spare in the first half and posting a personal 10-0 scoring run during the second half, Gafford finished with 29 points and 16 rebounds pacing Arkansas to an 82-70 SEC regular-season ending victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide at Walton.
Though only a sophomore, the 6-11 center from El Dorado seems a unanimously projected first-round choice should he turn pro for the June NBA draft.
Alabama Coach Avery Johnson, the former NBA head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, wished the draft had been like March 8 instead of June.
“The guy’s a pro,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say that while he’s in college. But I guess I would probably know one when I see it. He’s long, he’s athletic. He does a great job of picking and rolling. Unbelievable hands. So he’s a handful. That’s why he’s an All-SEC player and he’ll have a career playing basketball. That’s one of the reasons I was hoping that he would have been gone by this time this year.”
Especially if he continues playing like he did Saturday.
“Gafford is a handful,” Johnson said. “ He just looked like he was on another level from everyone on the court.”
Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson, his Razorbacks now matching Alabama at 17-14, 8-10 going into this week’s SEC Tournament, went above Gafford playing merely on another level.
“I thought he was playing on another stratosphere it seemed like,” Anderson said. “What a performance by Daniel. I thought he had a tremendous game.”
Gafford laughed and said he appreciated the “one more year” chants he heard from UA students as he was removed from the game to a standing ovation with 1:24 left.
“Yeah, I did. A lot,” Gafford said. “You can’t go a day without appreciating the fans at the Hog basketball games because you know they’ll go to war for you.
Though scoring 17 and 20 points his last two games in victories over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, Gafford had just a collective six rebounds for those games. Saturday he erased the boards against Alabama and its 6-9 senior Donta Hall whom Anderson calls “super athletic.”
Gafford dwarfed Hall Saturday with 29 points and 16 rebounds to Hall’s three points and eight boards.
“I wanted every rebound today,”Gafford said. “The mindset coming out was to outrebound him (Hall), and the mindset with the team was that we were going to outrebound them too, but I wanted to outrebound everyone. I just came out and grabbed every board that I could.
Obviously he meant it and did it , Anderson said.
“His mindset was go get every rebound knowing that Alabama, they feast on rebounding the basketball,” Anderson said. “Alabama is a very good basketball team but our defense disrupted Alabama.”
Anderson credited freshman backup center Reggie Chaney’s 10 minutes spelling Gafford keeping him fresh for his 10 consecutive points run in the second half. Both laughed about the 6-11 taking the Tide coast to coast dribbling the length of the court for a crowd erupting layup putting Arkansas up 40-31.
“I know that’s not going to happen again in a million years probably,” Gafford said. “But didn’t see anybody I could pass it to and I didn’t want to turn the ball over. When I crossed over on Herbert (Jones, the Alabama forward)), the lane was just wide open. I had somebody behind me, so I was trying to at least handle it a little bit. I didn’t want to take it between my legs. So I just took it to the rack and Hall was right there. I was going to see if I could finish over him, but he never even contested it, so I had a wide open layup.
“I didn’t know what he was doing,” Anderson said. “He’d just better be glad he made the play. But again, he was having fun. And playing for a coach like that would give a big guy the freedom to do that, I must be crazy.”
Gafford played a great game but he certainly didn’t excel alone.
Not only did the Razorbacks play “great team defense from everyone on the floor,” but got big offensive games from freshman guards Isiah Joe, the Fort Smith Northside alums registered 15 points, six rebounds plus defensively a game-leading six steals, and Jonesboro’s Desi Sills, 11 points.
Anderson said the Hogs “took care of the basketball,” eight turnovers to Alabama’s 15, hit 15 of 18 free throws to Alabama’s 10 for 20, and because of Gafford matched the Tide, 36-36 on the boards.
Their final home game marked “a contrast,” Anderson said, to their first SEC home game, a 57-51 loss back on Jan. 9 to the Florida Gators team they will play in Thursday’s noon (CDT) game of the SEC Tournament in Nashville.
“I just thought then we didn’t play well,” Anderson said. “Defensively today we were on point.”
After finally leading, 36-31 at intermission a back and forth first half, the Razorbacks took second half command and rose to every occasion when the Tide appeared ready to rally.
“It was good to see our guys recognize when momentum was taking place and we took advantage of it,” Anderson said.