Kevin McPherson: Blows Non Stop for Hogs, Fans

 

 

The gut punches inside Bud Walton Arena started before the Hogs and Gators tipped off their SEC opener Thursday, and those body blows never seemed to let up until the late-night hours when the final bell rang on the northern outskirts of the Boston Mountains.

The Razorback nation troops – both UA football and basketball teams – were put down soundly in the same night, and for most of the 16,035 who showed up to BWA for the double-feature, surely they felt the blows, too.

Pardon me for using boxing analogies in this look-back, but you had to be there to understand. Maybe 1,000 fans were in their seats to watch on the giant HD-video screen/scoreboard as the football Hogs were whipping Virginia Tech, 24-0, to start the 3rd quarter in the Belk Bowl. But by the time the Hokies had scored 28 unanswered points to take a 28-24 lead into the early moments of the 4th quarter, at least 12,000 fans had filed into BWA and were hunkered over, grimmacing and moaning.

Constant body shots will do that to you, and the 35-24 loss by the football Hogs was only the beginning. Because as soon as the BWA staff turned off the Hogs’ downward spiral in the late stages at the Belk Bowl from the big screen for the tip of Arkansas-v-Florida with 16,000-plus now in their seats, the basketball Gators continued their mastery of the Hogs, winning their 6th in a row in the series with a steady avalanche of punches to the mid-section followed by timely counter-punches every time the Hogs landed any meaningful shots of their own.

Mike Anderson alluded to it after the Gators had finished the Hogs off convincingly, 81-72: “We didn’t play with the physicality we needed to tonight … the aggressiveness wasn’t there.”

Florida came in ready and took the fight to the Hogs, who weren’t as overmatched as they were unprepared for the Gators’ return-fire every time the Hogs made a run.

Second-year Florida coach Mike White saw it as a fight, too: “I thought we got punched in the mouth the first 3 minutes, but then settled  down.” He was referring to the beginning of the 2nd half, when the Hogs chopped a 9-point halftime deficit down to 3, 45-42. A 5-0 Florida run — 3 FTs and a bucket all by the long and athletic 6-8 Devin Robinson — extended the Gators’ lead back to 8, 50-42.

And it was those kinds of timely counter-punches — not devastating head shots, but constant body blows — that kept the Hogs at a distance where they could not land enough power shots to turn the fight. Robinson’s alley-oop dunk put the Gators up for good, 21-19, with 11:04 remaining in the first half, and everything that followed was a methodical beating by the Gators.

“It wasn’t our day, but you could say Florida had a lot to do with that,” Anderson said. “We didn’t panic, but we didn’t play well.”

He’s right. Florida came in with match-up advantages, but playing on the road at BWA can be an equalizer. So, smartly the Gators didn’t take off a few early rounds to probe and feel the Hogs out … instead, they went to work from the opening bell. Arkansas was the team that seemed unsure of when and how to engage in battle.

An example was the play of Moses Kingsley, who’s been a 2nd-half player most of the season but showed signs of first-half life against the Hogs’ previous opponent — Sam Houston State — when he scored 13 first-half points. He came out aggressive against Florida too, and you could tell the gameplan was to get him involved early, but it seemed he mostly threw wild punches in the paint. He either rushed his shot attempts (2-of-8 FGs in 1st half, 5-of-15 for the game plus 3-of-6 FTs for the game) or he turned the ball over trying too hard to beat his man (all 3 turnovers suffered in the first half). Even though “Beast Mo” finished the game with 13 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 blocks, the offensive inefficiency had a more significant impact on the outcome of the game, rendering the double-double an underwhelming parting gift.

The real strength of this Arkansas team, though, is it’s deep and tough backcourt and bench play, but Florida’s guards — although only 3-deep — are talented, athletic, skilled, and savvy veterans who neutralized the Hogs’ guards enough for the Gators’ significant frontline advantages to make the difference.

Arkansas native and shooting guard KeVaughn Allen (North Little Rock) scored 21 points in his first game on the home turf as a Gator, and most of that damage was done beyond the 3-point line where he was not only sizzling (5-of-9), but again, several were timely body shots that backed the Hogs off from mini-runs, stopping comeback bids. Allen didn’t have a brilliant overall floor game — he was 2-of-7 inside the arc with 2 rebounds, 1 steal and no assists in 34 minutues — but his 3-point shooting and ZERO turnovers were a HUGE part of the fight that Florida executed brilliantly.

Arkansas native Daryl Macon (Little Rock Parkview) had the best overall game for either team — 22 points on 7-of-10 field goals including 3-of-5 from 3 and 5-of-6 free throws, plus 4 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal in 33 minutes — but he also had several scraps and battles defensively with deflections and loose-ball scrums that led to disrupted Gator possessions, and those don’t show up in boxscores. The 6-foot-3 junior, who has emerged as the Hogs’ best all-around player, showed plenty of dog and fight from the beginning, but it simply wasn’t enough.

Anderson agreed: “Macon showed up for us. We had some that didn’t.”

Overall, the Hogs’ guards scored 49 points compared to the Gators’ 36, but Florida play-making duo of guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza combined for 10 assists and only 4 turnovers, while Arkansas’ 5-deep backcourt combined for 6 assists and 6 turnovers. Effectively a statistical wash overall, but advantage Gators here because Hill and Chiozza applied constant pressure on offense with quick lane-penetrating  bursts that led to open looks for others, inside and out.

And then there’s the bench play. Arkansas’ bench had destroyed the previous 6 opposing benches — 228-77, a plus-25.2-points-per-game margin — but only outpointed the Gators’ bench 20-17. Another push, or advantage Gators for keeping it close.

But the heaviest damage was done by Florida’s skilled, long, and athletic combo forward — the afore-mentioned Devin Robinson. His 17 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 1 steal were more than Dustin Thomas, Arlando Cook, Adrio Bailey, and Trey Thompson could muster combined in every category (10 points, 6 rebounds, 1 block, no steals).

Robinson was the most devastating puncher because the Hogs forwards and guards looked helpless trying to guard him and keep him off the glass, and he certainly had his way flying over them to finish above the rim or tip/deflect loose balls to teammates. Again, that one-man 5-0 run by Robinson that turned a 3-point Gators lead to an 8-point lead early in the 2nd half was the kind of combo-punching that Arkansas simply had no answer for all night.

Add in Florida’s other frontliners — Arkansas native Justin Leon (6 points, 4 rebounds, 1 block, 1 steal), Kevarrius Hayes (10 points, 6 rebounds, 1 block, 1 steal), and John Egbunu (5 points, 11 rebounds, 1 block, 1 steal) — and you can see where the fight was won (and lost).

So, left on the canvas at 11-2 (0-1 SEC) and with an RPI that plummeted 21 spots down to No. 45, Arkansas is faced with back-to-back road games — on Tuesday at resurgent Tennessee (RPI No. 70, record is 8-5, but 1-0 SEC after big road win against Texas A&M) followed by No. 8 Kentucky (RPI No. 7, 11-2 overall and 1-0 SEC after destroying a decent Ole Miss team on the road).

The Hogs very well could be 0-3 after this road swing, but a split would set them up nicely for home games against Mississippi State and Missouri the following week. Florida is likely one of the top 2 or 3 teams in the SEC, so this one game is not necessarily an indicator of how bad the Hogs are, and there’s 17 more conference games to prove how good they are and can be.

Moses Kingsley has got to settle down (mostly mental stuff — improving his shot selection, timing, and footwork), but at the same time he’s got to play aggressively in both halves of games. Jaylen Barford is a talented, strong slasher, but decision-making, shot selection, and turnovers are haunting him right now as he adjusts the game played at the high-major level — the Hogs need him to figure it out sooner rather than later. As Daryl Macon has surged, Dusty Hannahs has slumped of late while transitioning from the bench back to starter. The Hogs need him to round into the consistent shooter-scorer he was last season. Manny Watkins and Anton Beard have been solid, but they are not game-changers, either. And though Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook have shown flashes, the SEC is big-boy basketball and one (if not both) needs to emerge as a consistent, productive contributor at the combo-4 spot.

Lots of questions hanging out there with the answers likely determining whether the Hogs are a fringe NCAAT team or a sure-fire NIT team. But first things first: Gotta get off the mat and answer the next bell. It rings in Knoxville on Tuesday. Ding ding.

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Kevin McPherson is a former sportswriter and editor at both the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat, as well as a former contributor to newspapers in Northwest Arkansas — covering Arkansas Razorbacks basketball, high school football and basketball, and basketball recruiting. He’s entering his 13th year as a mortgage banker with Bank of England, but he still covers Razorback basketball and recruiting as well as high school sports. You can join him live every Monday and Thursday at 1:30 CST on The Hog Call, KREB 1190 The Fan in Northwest Arkansas by clicking here: http://1190thefan.com/listen-live/ You can also follow him live on Twitter @ARHoopScoop.

hogs drop the ball in conference opener

 

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