Observations: Arkansas 76, Auburn 73
Once again, these Tigers refused to die. But they weren't able to hit the clutch shot that a tough Arkansas team did in an early exit.
SG K.D. Johnson (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
NASHVILLE — Chris Moore was in pain.
He already missed almost the entire first half due to an injury in which he went chin-first into the hardwood at Bridgestone Arena. He would start bleeding again in the second half, causing him to switch out his jersey for a blank No. 41.
But the forward from Arkansas knew he would be hurting more if Auburn kept going in the direction it was headed against his home state school in the SEC Tournament.
“I knew that this couldn't be the end,” Moore said. “I told myself, I said, 'No matter how much pain you might be in after the game or even right now, you've gotta go out there and help your teammates win.'“
And that included making a game-changing performance while sitting on the bench. After Bruce Pearl called a timeout with Arkansas on a 6-0 run to stretch its lead to 14 points, Moore — in the words of his head coach — “lit into the bench.”
“It was just about that we all knew that we weren’t playing to our capabilities,” Moore said. “We weren't playing with the effort and energy that our coach emphasizes a lot. Somebody had to speak up, and I feel like it had to be said for us to have that comeback that we had in the second half. When I said that, I'm pretty sure I lit a fire under everybody. We started playing better.”
Auburn immediately went on a 6-0 run in 34 seconds behind Flanigan and a red-hot K.D. Johnson, who would later have a 9-0 by himself a few minutes later. And the Tigers chipped the Razorbacks’ lead all the way down, as Flanigan hit a tough bucket with 41 seconds left to give them the lead.
Nick Smith Jr., the No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2022 who didn’t play in Auburn’s first meeting with an ultra-talented Arkansas team, came through with a midrange jumper on the other end.
And when Wendell Green Jr.’s drive and wraparound pass to Johni Broome on the other end didn’t result in a bucket or a foul call, Arkansas had the lead back up to 3 with just 12 seconds left.
Johnson had the ball in his hands at first on the final possession, but Auburn called timeout when he wasn’t able to use his quickness to beat the Arkansas defense once again.
Then the Tigers drew up a final play for the tie: a backside lob from Flanigan to Jaylin Williams, who would kick it out to Green on a curl at the top of the key.
The play went off according to plan — but the 3-pointer didn’t go down for Green.
“Just tried to get me downhill, make a play,” Johnson said. “Kind of slipped at the end. They just called a timeout, drew up a good play, just didn't go in. I live with that night and day. He's still my teammate. So, you know, that's all good.”
Once again, Auburn overcame the odds to battle back and give itself a chance to win in the final minutes against a high-quality opponent. But, once again, the Tigers were on the wrong end of a close loss away from home.
In the positives and the negatives, it was quintessential 2022-23 Auburn.
“Lesser character teams would have quit, laid down,” Pearl said. “This team just hasn't.”
Here are five Observations from Auburn’s 76-73 loss against Arkansas in the SEC Tournament, along with the Rotation Charts, Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
SF Allen Flanigan (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
Auburn was ‘physically bothered’ by Arkansas
As far as double-digit seeds in a conference tournament go, Arkansas is a nightmare opponent. The Razorbacks are No. 18 in the NCAA’s NET rankings and a top-20 team in pretty much every ratings system out there. Three of their key players — Smith, Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh — were top-20 recruits nationally.
In Auburn’s first matchup against Arkansas, the Tigers were out-rebounded by 12 but were able to hold down a Smith-less offense with strong zone defense. In the rematch in Nashville, Arkansas went with a small-ball starting five and tried to use all of its physical tools to its advantage.
“I think physically, they bothered us with their athleticism and their length,” Pearl said. “As a result, we got dominated on the boards, which made it really difficult for us to win the basketball game.”
Arkansas finished the game with 18 more rebounds than Auburn, and it really made a huge difference in a result that was decided by a single possession. The Razorbacks tripled up the Tigers in second-chance points (18-6) and got 13 offensive boards, despite only missing just 22 field goal attempts all game.
“We can't really dwell on that (last) shot, because that shot really wasn't the reason we lost the game,” backup center Dylan Cardwell said. “We got out-rebounded by almost 20, that's the reason. They got a lot of second-chance points, they got a lot of free throws. We were fouling too much.
“It's like, if we want to control our destiny, we have to control it from the jump. We started both (down) double digits. We can't start like that. I'm proud of the way we battled back, but we just can't start like that.”
Broome led Auburn with seven rebounds, but no one else had more than Flanigan’s three. Meanwhile, Arkansas got 10 boards from veteran point guard Davonte Davis, six from Makhi Mitchell and six from the 6-foot-6 Black.
“Give (Black) credit for crashing, but our guys didn't do a good enough job of putting a body on him,” Pearl said. “I don't recall us getting a foul checking him out. That wasn't an issue. We should have been more physical keeping him off the boards.”
Additionally, Arkansas used those advantages to really attack Auburn’s defense, which has had an issue with bigger guards this season. The Razorbacks finished 12-16 on layups and 7-7 on dunks — going 9-23 on every other shot from the field.
Eric Musselman is a former NBA head coach, and he runs a pro system with his Razorbacks. For several stretches of the game, it overpowered Auburn’s defense.
“They have very big guards,” Williams said. “Them driving downhill is just tough. And then the backcut was just hard to cover. … Ball screens are always hard to cover. You see it in the NBA all the time: They're just running ball screens. They did it very well this time.”
Several players talked about Auburn’s “effort and energy” at times in the postgame locker room, but Pearl was very adamant in his press conference that those weren’t the issues for his team in the loss.
Auburn punched back after Arkansas raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second half, and it had to play with a lot of toughness just to get into a position for a potential win. But the physicality difference stuck out in the end.
“I told them I was proud of them,” Pearl said. “They put themselves in that position. We went through the things that we didn't do, the lack of physicality. Arkansas's athleticism, toughness was where we got beat. We got beat on not the effort. There were other things — (Arkansas’) big guards, very physical.
“We didn't match their physicality.”
SG K.D. Johnson (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)