Nate Allen Sports
Only once in Saturday’s game’s final 15:37 did Arkansas lead the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
That lead, 77-76 on Daniel Gafford’s rebound putback of teammate Isaiah Joe’s airball, put the Razorbacks up 77-76 with 45 seconds left.
The lead didn’t last. Neither did Arkansas’ 28-game nonconference winning streak at Walton Arena.
With 19 seconds left, the Hilltoppers’ Marek Nelson tallied a wide open layup for a 78-77 WKU victory after Hilltoppers’ 6-11 center Charles Bassey blocked the 6-11 Gafford’s shot out of bounds with one second left.
The loss before 9,349 at Walton Arena drops the Razorbacks to 6-2 with a week of University of Arkansas final exams before Arkansas next plays next Saturday night against Texas-San Antonio at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.
The Hilltoppers of Conference USA only 5-4 and coming off a loss at Missouri State, but with victories over Big 12 member West Virginia when the Mountaineers ranked 24th nationally, were led by Bassey, Nigerian native and former prep All-American at St. Anthony’s in San Antonio, and his 21 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots, and the 21 points, including 5 of 7 threes, by guard Jared Savage and 17 points by guard Tavieon Hollingsworth including 3 of 8 threes.
Freshman reserve become starting WKU Dalano Banton hit the other of WKU’s 9 for 22 treys, a big one snapping a 70-70 tie that had just been achieved by Arkansas freshman reserve Desi Sills.
Freshman guard Isaiah Joe of Fort Smith Northside led Arkansas with 19 points, 16 in Arkansas’ 41-33 first half, while sophomore Gafford of El Dorado scored 17 points with nine rebounds, two steals and two blocks while sophomore guards Mason Jones scored 15 and Jalen Harris scored 13 while dealing seven assists vs. zero turnovers.
Nice stats collectively but as a team effort, particularly defensively and with only Sills effective off what has been a recently effective Arkansas bench, not up to snuff, Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said.
“First off give Western Kentucky a lot of credit,” Anderson said. “I thought they came in with the right mindset. In the end they wanted it more than we did. I thought we looked sluggish on defense in terms of getting to spots and it came down to making plays. Making plays and making free throws (Arkansas made but 9 of 16 to WKU’s 11 of 17). You go back over the course of the game and free throws kind of add up. They made theirs, especially the big guy.”
Bassey made 7 of 8.
“He was making free throws going down the stretch,” Anderson said.
Gafford, who has struggled with free throws in the past, was Arkansas’ best free throw shooter Saturday at 3 for 3. Jones made 2 for 2 but the rest combined 4 of 11 including missing the front end of two first-half one and ones.
“That’s just a mental thing,” Sills said of the poor free throw shooting becoming contagious. “We’re going to get in practice tomorrow and we’re going to take it from there.”
Anderson said the Hilltoppers earned their success.
Rick Stansbury, the second-year WKU coach but long familiar vs. Arkansas as the longtime Mississippi State head coach and then top Texas A&M assistant, certainly concurred. Especially, said given the opponent and game site.
“Well first off, we knew coming into here it’s not just a very difficult place to play because of your fans, it’s a difficult place to play because of the team you’ve got between those lines,” Stansbury said. “And I’ll tell you, Mike’s got the most improved or surprising team in the Southeastern Conference this year. I know you guys, for them to come into this game being whatever they were after losing all those players they lost last year, they’re much better than anybody ever anticipated them being.”
And that pleased him all the more.
“Give our guys credit,” Stansbury said. “They did two things today that you’ve got to do on the road to win that I’ve been preaching and hadn’t really seen it. That is, you’ve got to have that grit. Where’s our toughness and where’s that grit at? That overcomes a lot of things. I saw it today.”
It helped the Hilltoppers shooting 50 percent, 29 of 58 to Arkansas’ 30 of 69.
“No matter what you do defensively, you’ve got to make shots,” Stansbury said.
Given their stats, the battle of the big men, lived up to its billing.
Gafford and Bassey are among the most coveted by NBA scouts who flocked to Fayetteville
“Well our guy is pretty good,” Stansbury said. “And Gafford is a terrific player.”
Western Kentucky often controlled first-half tempo but Arkansas controlled the first-half scoreboard.
The Razorbacks jumped to a 13-4 lead and other than one 22-22 tie, led the entire first half.
Joe’s three broke the 22-22 tie for a 3-point lead that Arkansas pushed twice to eight. Joe’s trey from the corner with 34 seconds left achieved the 41-33 lead at intermission.
Joe first achieved an 8-point lead on a breakaway field goal inducing a flagrant foul called on WKU guard Josh Anderson.
Joe only 2 of 5 free throws, made one of his two freebies awarded on the Flagrant 2 foul by WKU’s Josh Anderson automatically ejecting him from the game.
Usually a second-half team, the Razorbacks, as Anderson noted, sluggishly opened the second stanza. The 8-point lead was gone by 16:42.
Other than Sills, the Jonesboro freshman scored all nine of his points in the second half and “willed us back in the game,” Anderson said, provided no lift after outscoring Colorado State’s bench, 38-7 in last Wednesday’s 98-74 Arkansas victory in Fort Collins, Colo.
Still the Hogs took the lead but broke down on Nelson’s layup, Anderson said.
That obviously galled him even more than failing to score in the final 19 seconds.
“”The guy (Bassey) made a good play,” Anderson said. “The play before that all you’ve got do is defend. “I don’t know how, we had a guy fall, and left the big guy wide open and somebody came over to help and Nelson gets a wide open layup. So that’s a breakdown in your defense.”
Because one official was reported injured in an automobile accident on the way to the game, officials Brian Shey and Will Howard worked as a 2-man crew.
Not surprisingly, the winning coach apparently was more pleased with the officiating than the offering no opinion.
“I said ‘Hey it’s good.’ That’s one less guy we’ve got to worry about being bad,” Stansbury said laughing of his pregame joshing with the refs.. “So we’ve just got two of you guys. Most of the times I’ve been up here we’ve had three bad ones! We’re just gonna have two bad ones this time, so I told them that. So hey, what it is is what it is. They did as good a job as they could do.”
How did Anderson think the 2-man crew impacted the game?
“No comment,” Anderson replied.
Nate Allen Sports