Arkansas fans, you may well have witnessed SEC and Arkansas history on Saturday night in Baton Rouge.
The Hogs improbably shot and generally played out of their collective minds for 30 minutes or so. Daniel Gafford was at his assertive, rim-shaking best, and the perimeter shooting was acutely on point. Having built a 66-48 lead midway through the second half, Arkansas had completely silenced the normally ebullient fans inside Maravich Assembly Center.
It wasn’t just that the Razorbacks were streaking instead of struggling with their offense, they were taking apart one of the season’s great fairy tales page by page. LSU was a spotless 7-0 in conference play, with some good fortune to get there (a win over Arkansas in overtime included), and the Tigers had an 18-game home winning streak. Will Wade had seemingly quickly constructed a blossoming program out of ashes in no time, and LSU was simply too talented to look this defeated and dead.
So that’s when, objectively speaking, the fix became evident. LSU held an incomprehensibly irregular 38-11 free throw attempt advantage, and wore the Hogs out on the boards but seemingly got many of
By the three-minute mark, LSU had the lead and we cynics in red just threw our hands up in angsty, but completely familiar resignation. “The refs are [expletive kindly deleted] us,” we say, and we are tempted to tap the Netflix button on the remote and find some true-crime creepiness to settle into for the night.
But some utter oddities occurred from there. One, Arkansas maintained composure in spite of ill-gotten foul trouble, and once LSU claimed a one-point lead on Ja’Vonte Smart bucket, 84-83, this unforeseen resiliency showed itself. Isaiah Joe made two free throws to give the Hogs the lead back, then Gafford would make a layup later when the Tigers had nudged back ahead. In the last minute, trailing by one, the Hogs ran their last and best possession of the night. Mason Jones ended up with a clean look for a floater from about eight feet, and Arkansas led 90-89, but LSU had three chances in the final 20 seconds all go awry.
It was an escape. It was perseverance. It was a night for Gafford to play like a lottery pick again, after offering only a few glimpses of that thus far. And it was a night for the unheralded KeShawn Embery-Simpson to lead the Hogs’ scalding three-point shooting (13-24, with Embery-Simpson and Isaiah Joe each having four and four other players each at least making one) and the bench, limited as it is, to contribute in meaningful ways at both ends. Gabe Osabuohien, not necessarily the most adept offensive player, had a brilliant effort on the defensive end before fouling out.
Arkansas pulled its record to 13-8 and 4-4 in conference play after a third straight SEC victory. But this one had “signature win” feel to it, as the Hogs beat back the gifted Tigers, their own demons, and the officiating on a satisfying Saturday night down south.