Is winning the hard way sustainable for Hogs?

Arkansas senior Jaylen Barford / Photo:

Just when I thought I had the Arkansas Razorbacks figured out, they pull off a victory like they did Tuesday night at Athens, Ga.

After watching the Razorbacks struggle to a 3-4 record through seven conference games, I didn’t think the Hogs would pull off a road victory against Georgia. I knew they were capable of winning at Georgia, but based on their recent play, I didn’t think they would.

Man, did the Hogs prove me wrong.

Once again, Arkansas spotted a team a double-digit, first-half lead, but thanks to monumental performances by senior guards Jaylen Barford in regulation and Daryl Macon in the two overtimes, the Razorbacks were able to just squeak by the Bulldogs, 80-77. The senior duo combined for 49 of the Arkansas’ 80 points with Macon scoring 25 and Barford 24.

Arkansas vs. Oklahoma State

Date: Saturday, Jan. 27
Time: 5 p.m.
Location: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
Television: ESPN2

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Macon scored 11 of his in the second overtime alone, including three, clutch three-pointers in a row. He also canned 6-of 6 free throws on the night, two of which sealed the game.

Barford, who looked spent in the two overtime periods, kept the Razorbacks in the game during regulation with his scoring prowess.

But even with all of Macon and Barford’s heroics, with 2.2 seconds on the clock in double overtime, it looked like the Hogs were about to cough up another game.

Georgia strongman Yante Maten, arguably the best player in the league, had the ball on the baseline ready to put the Bulldogs up by 1 with an easy shot. Maten had already plundered the Hogs for 25 points and 15 rebounds.

With him just four feet from the basket and no defender in front of him, the potential game-winner looked like one of his easier shots of the night.

However, Razorback senior forward Trey Thompson would have none of that. He slipped behind Maten and tapped away what could have been the game winner for his third block of the game.

It was Thompson’s biggest play of the year, and it might be the biggest play of the season so far for the Razorbacks.

With Georgia having to foul, Macon iced the game at the free-throw line, downing two free throws for the three-point advantage. The Bulldogs did get a shot off, but it wasn’t particularly close.

The victory was the Razorbacks’ first road victory in conference play. In fact, it was the Hogs first true road win of the season, although the Razorbacks are 3-1 in neutral-court games this season.

The victory evened up the Hogs’ SEC record at 4-4 and leaves them a respectable 14-6 on the season.

It was a great win, and while the offensive heroics of Macon and Barford were on full display, it is appropriate that Thompson’s blocked shot delivered the victory because defense saved the Hogs’ bacon.

After playing wishy-washy defense for most of the first half and opening the game by hitting just 3 of their first 17 shots from the field, the Razorbacks turned up the heat defensively in the final three minutes of the half, disrupting Georgia’s offense. That allowed the Hogs to pull within striking distance at halftime, trailing just 33-28.

While Arkansas’ second half defensive play wasn’t quite as furious, that late first-half flurry of defense gave them a chance, and with a chance the Hogs’ seniors earned a tenuous victory.

It was a much-needed win, and truly a great victory. However, the way the Razorbacks won is not a sustainable path to success for the Razorbacks.

The Razorbacks opened the game going 3 for 17 from the field because they lacked patience and took poor shots. The Hogs must get into a flow where they make their motion offense work for them rather than constantly having to work so hard one-on-one to generate offense.

The Razorbacks shouldn’t have to dig a 15-point hole for themselves before turning up the juice on defense. They need to have that clamp-down urgency from the opening tip.

The Hogs have 11 more regular-season games left. How many more games like Tuesday’s do Barford and Macon have in them?

And again, even with their heroics, it took Thompson being in the right place at the right time to come up with a clean block for Arkansas to secure that game.

Had Thompson just grazed Maten’s arm, or if the refs had anticipated a foul and blown their whistle as we have all seen them do, the game very easily could have gone the other way.

It didn’t Tuesday night, and that is to the credit of the Razorbacks, head coach Mike Anderson, and his coaching staff. Some teams would have given up in the first half, taken their beating, and went home.

But that game was a 50/50 contest right to the end. I contend it didn’t have to be that way. With more urgent defensive play and better offensive execution, the Hogs might have not have needed such monumental heroics for the victory.

The Razorbacks get a break from SEC play at 5 p.m. Saturday when Oklahoma State visits Walton Arena for the fifth Big 12/SEC Challenge. However, the game isn’t really a break.

The Cowboys have a record that is almost identical to the Razorbacks at 13-7 overall and 3-5 in Big 12 play. While the SEC is greatly improved this year, the Big 12 is still considered to be a better basketball league. The head-to-head challenge between the two leagues will at least give one conference bragging rights until March Madness.

Historically, the Razorbacks have not fared well against the Cowboys. According to Arkansas Media Relations’ notes package, the Hogs have lost their last five games to OSU, dating back 46 years.

A victory over OSU would help the Razorbacks’ NCAA Tournament resume, which has taken a lot of hits since Arkansas opened the SEC slate with an overtime home win over Tennessee. It would also give the Hogs some momentum going into next week’s two-game road swing at Texas A&M on Tuesday and at LSU on Feb. 3.

As for a prediction for this game, I’m going to recuse myself. Playing at Walton Arena is a distinct advantage for the Razorbacks, but since LSU blew the doors off the Hogs, 75-54, at The Bud on Jan. 10, no victory can be taken for granted.

A lot depends on the Hogs’ bench. Macon and Barford outscored the rest of their teammates 49-31 at Georgia. That’s not to say the other Hogs didn’t play well. They did the final 33 minutes of the game defensively, but one would think the scoring load needs to even out some for the Razorbacks to remain successful.

Georgia’s big men put the clamps on freshman Daniel Gafford, holding him scoreless. It will be interesting to see how he responds against OSU. Up to that point in the season, we had only seen Gafford improve. Was the Georgia game an anomaly or an outlier, or has the talented freshman hit a wall? Hopefully it’s the former rather than the latter.

One last note, Barford is having a heck of a season for the Hogs. The 6-3 senior guard is leading the SEC in scoring during conference play with a 20.6 ppg. average. He is the only player in the league to rank in the top five of points per game, field-goal percentage, and 3-point field-goal percentage. He and Macon also lead the SEC in three-point, field goal percentage with Barford at 45.5 percent and Macon at 42.3 percent.