It came down to the final possession in Auburn's matchup with Arkansas on Wednesday.
The Tigers had an opportunity to tie the game in the closing seconds but ultimately left Bud Walton Arena with a 75-73 loss.
“Disappointing loss,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl. “Kind of let one get away...a tale of two halves.”
Heading into the matchup, Pearl highlighted the fact that his team needed to improve on defense against the Razorbacks. Arkansas scored 97 points in a win at Auburn Arena earlier this season.
The defense was prevalent in the first half, where Auburn allowed only eight points through the first 12:12 of play. It was with over four minutes left in the first half when the Razorbacks reached the 20-point mark.
Meanwhile, Auburn had 37 points and a comfortable lead that grew to as many as 19 in the game. Over the final four minutes of the half and the rest of the game, the Tigers saw their defense and lead evaporate.
“The last three or four minutes of the first half, we kind of took our foot off the gas and gave Arkansas some confidence,” Pearl said. “They just kept that through halftime.”
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The Razorbacks closed the first half on a 15-6 run. During the run, Arkansas made eight consecutive shots from the field. Auburn took a 43-31 lead into halftime, but momentum was in favor of the home team.
“In the second half, they drove by us a little more,” Pearl said. “They back cut us and they killed us on the offensive glass.”
The Razorbacks came out of the locker rooms full of momentum, opening the second half on a 14-4 run to tie the game at 47. Arkansas took its first lead with 13:26 remaining.
“We just got too complacent, too comfortable,” said freshman point guard Sharife Cooper. “We definitely can’t allow that to happen just seeing success and taking plays off. I think that was a big key factor in giving them back the lead, and that’s something I gotta vocally speak to my teammates and be better about. It’s early in our path together, that’s something we definitely gotta get better at.”
Cooper and the Tigers were never able to find the offensive or defensive efficiency they had in the first half. Arkansas placed a consistent double-team on Cooper in the second half, putting constant pressure on the Tigers’ leading scorer.
Despite the double-teams in the second half, Cooper finished the game with 25 points.
“It kind of popped up on us,” Cooper said. “Just reacting to whatever they’re doing and finding a solution a little quicker. I think that would have helped us.”
It didn’t help the Tigers that players such as Allen Flanigan and Jamal Johnson were dealing with foul trouble. Both players earned four fouls and were limited in floor time the second half because of it. Johnson only played 11 minutes in the second half, while Flanigan played nine.
“It was a factor,” Pearl said. “Their foul trouble was definitely a factor.”
As the game progressed, Auburn saw its once-cushioned lead slip away. A trend of back-and-forth scoring bursts emerged as Arkansas slowly built up its lead. The lead grew as large as eight, where Arkansas led 74-66 with 2:40 remaining in the game.
It looked as if the contest was all but decided until one final push from Auburn put some pressure on the Razorbacks.
“Just desperation,” Cooper said. “We wanted to come here and get a win. Our backs were against the wall and we fought till the end, so I’m proud of that.”
JT Thor, Flanigan and Johnson all reached the free-throw line in a span of 35 seconds. The trio shot a combined 3-of-6 from the charity stripe, bringing the game within five with just under two minutes left.
A steal by Thor and a defensive stop led to a pair of Cooper layups, bringing the Tigers within one with 1:03 remaining. Auburn made one last defensive stop to get the ball back with 26 seconds left.
Pearl put the ball in the hands of his freshman point guard.
Cooper drove to the basket as the clock hit five seconds and as a trio of Razorback defenders swarmed him, put the shot up. The shot attempt was no good as Moses Moody grabbed the rebound for Arkansas, effectively ending the game.
“From my standpoint, down one late, I probably should have let Sharife go quicker than that,” Pearl said. “If he goes quicker and he doesn’t score, we foul, we get another possession with more time. That’s on me, I cost us a possession late.”
Auburn now turns toward South Carolina, who the Tigers face on Saturday in Columbia, South Carolina. Tipoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. CST with the game airing on ESPN2.
“I definitely want that one back,” Cooper said. “I feel like if I had a second chance, I could finish that one. But you know, it’s over. We’re just getting ready for South Carolina and getting focused on them.”
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