FAYETTEVILLE – Desi Sills and Jalen Tate rediscovered their prowess perhaps to save Arkansas’ season.
With a lot of help from teammates Devo Davis, Justin Smith and Jaylin Williams and belatedly Moses Moody, Sills and Tate rescued the Razorbacks from a third consecutive crushing SEC loss trailing 19 points during the first half before overcoming the Auburn Tigers, 75-73 Wednesday night at Walton Arena.
Arkansas advanced to 11-4 overall/ 3-4 in the SEC and completed a home and home sweep of Coach Bruce Pearl’s Tigers, 8-7, 2-5, that Arkansas beat 97-85 opening the SEC season Dec. 30 at Auburn, Ala.
Wednesday at Walton Arkansas struggled through its third consecutive dreadful first half down 37-18 with 4:17 left before intermission. The Hogs closed the half whittling Auburn’s advantage down to a dozen, 43-31. They opened the second half with a 18-5 surge carrying them to winning what had appeared unwinnable playing with heart warming their coach’s heart.
“I don’t think a team could have played any harder than we did in the second half,” Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said. “I would take that effort and the energy they played with anywhere against anybody. I thought they really laid it on the line in a game we had to win.”
Sills, the junior from Jonesboro slumping since scoring a career high 23 points in the SEC opener at Auburn, played possessed off Wednesday’s bench. A whirling dervish fearless throwing his 6-1 body around inside, Sills scored a team high 22 points including 8 of 10 free throws inviting fouls by the limbs of Auburn’s shot-blocking trees at the rim.
Auburn blocked nine shots Wednesday but Sills just went back it undeterred.
“I think he (Sills) came out with incredible intent to get to the rim and not settle and draw FTAs (free throws attempted) and get to the rim as much as possible,” Musselman said.
Tate said Auburn should have seen Sills coming.
“Desi’s the Auburn killer, Tate said. “The War Eagle slayer.”
Tate, the graduate transfer point guard recently turnover prone, was easily forgiven his five turnovers Wednesday. He recorded five assists, one more than Auburn star point guard Sharife Cooper, and scored 10 of his 14 points when the Hogs desperately needed them in the first half.
Tate fouled out with 2:27 left in the game. His ball handling and command was sorely missed as a 74-67 lead almost dissolved in a shaky 75-74 finish.
Smith and Davis each scored 10 points. Freshman forward Williams off the bench played the entire second half and grabbed a game-leading seven rebounds and scored seven points including a key three and devastating dunk.
Freshman guard Moody, about the only offense Arkansas had scoring 28 when the Hogs were annihilated at Alabama last Saturday, didn’t score the first 29:02 Wednesday and finished with a season low five points.
But when Cooper’s go-ahead bid inside with five seconds left in the game and Auburn down 74-73 didn’t connect, Moody rebounded the game’s last board. He was fouled with :02 on the clock. Moody made 1 of 2 and saw the desperately too far three launched by Auburn’s Allen Flanigan miss way off the mark.
“We just walled up and Mo came out with a big rebound,” Sills said. “That’s the key to the game.”
Containing Cooper’s assists was key, too.
Auburn’s freshman phenom point guard, not eligible when Arkansas won at Auburn, proved as good as advertised. He scored a game-leading 25 points. But with Musselman constantly putting two defenders on the ball which Cooper normally has practically the whole game, Cooper either had to shoot or pass earlier than he preferred.
Only Auburn forward JK Thor, 12 points, joined Cooper scoring double-digits.
So after dishing nine, 12 and eight assists in a narrow loss to lone unbeaten in the SEC Alabama and victories over Georgia and Kentucky, Cooper only assisted four baskets at Walton against four turnovers.
“He’s averaging close to 10 assists a game,” Musselman said. “And our big thing was not to allow him to get easy layups and dunks for his teammates. I thought we did a good job limiting him to a season low in assists.”
Tate said it took a team effort to limit Cooper the 6-1 facilitator.
“He does a great job getting his teammates involved usually, but we had a great game plan to get back on defense for him just to see bodies and length,” Tate, 6-6, said. Having our windmills ready and being able to disrupt him any way we can.”
And win the game they had to win even as it seemed lost in the first half again. to all but them.
“Even when we were down 19,” Musselman said, “I thought our huddles we had a little bit different belief than we did the past two games.”
Seeing is believing, it seems.