Smith’s clutch jumper sets up showdown with Aggies

Arkansas guard Nick Smith Jr. (3) drives up court after stealing the ball as Auburn guard Allen Flanigan (22) gives chase during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament, Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Like a cold drink of water on a hot summer day, freshman guard Nick Smith Jr. refreshed the Arkansas Razorbacks Thursday night by splashing in an ice-cold 15-foot jumper to give the Hogs a 74-73 lead over the Auburn Tigers with 20 seconds left in their SEC Tournament showdown.

The shot was a damp towel on a sizzling fire, all but extinguishing Auburn’s comeback attempt from a 15-point second-half deficit.

The Razorbacks extended the lead to the final score of 76-73, thanks to a steal and two free throws by junior Davonte “Devo Davis” with 11 seconds left in the game on the second day of action in the SEC Basketball Tournament at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl called a timeout with 3.5 seconds, and drew up an excellent in-bounds play.

Little Rock native Allen Flanigan threw a risky cross-court inbounds pass to Jaylin Williams who fed the ball to Wendell Green after he rubbed off his defender Davis on a screen by Johni Broome near the top of the key to get an open three-pointer with 2.2 clicks on the clock.

The shot was just off target, lipping off the front of the rim.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Texas A&M
When: 6 p.m. Friday, March 10
Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network

Davis ran down the rebound as the buzzer sounded, and Green, who said Tuesday, “We don’t like Arkansas” sat dejected on the hardwood just a few away from where he missed the shot that would have sent the game into overtime.

Had Green’s shot fallen, who knows what would have happened in overtime?

Either team could have won?

It’s fortunate for Eric Musselman’s Hogs that the game wasn’t extended because the Razorbacks now have a 6 p.m. date with Buzz Williams’ fresh Texas A&M squad in today’s semifinals.

The Hogs and Aggies split in the regular season with Arkansas winning 81-70 at Walton Arena on Jan. 31, and the A&M taking a 62-56 victory at Bryan-College Station.

The rubber match should be a good one. The Aggies come in fresh, while the Hogs shook off any jitters against the Tigers.

A&M is a veteran team, very physical and mentally tough. It will be interesting to see how the wear and tear of a down-to-the-buzzer game will affect the Razorbacks Friday.

Did victory inject a dose of confidence in the young-ish squad that has a lot to prove after a less-than-mediocre performance in regular-season SEC play?

Or did the Hogs expend too much energy in the back-and-forth game with Auburn to compete with the Aggies? Will the Hogs have enough in the tank to fight off a very physical, tough and tenacious Aggie squad that has fresh legs?

Now, even the oldest Razorback is young and springy. Playing two games in two days isn’t really that big of a deal physically, unless one is nursing an injury like Jordan Walsh, who appears to be struggling with his back. Every Hog grew up playing AAU ball, where teams play multiple games in a day over a three- or four-day span.

But, those games aren’t as physically taxing as a college game, and they certainly don’t compare mentally. Mental fatigue and acuity has been an issue for this squad all season.

Even at this point in the year, the Razorbacks seem to have issues focusing within games. The Hogs have been able to build double-digit leads many times this SEC season, but the Razorbacks often lose focus after attaining them. Those leads evaporate so quickly.

Those mental lapses are the difference in Arkansas being a top-rung team in the SEC and a lower-end squad as a 10th seed.

How many times this season did the Razorbacks hold double-digit leads in the first or even second half but see them melt away?

Friday’s SEC Tournament Schedule

Noon — No. 4 Alabama vs. Mississippi State (ESPN)
2 p.m. — No. 17 Tennessee vs. No. 25 Missouri (ESPN)
6 p.m. — Arkansas vs. No. 18 Texas A&M (SEC Network)
8 p.m. — Vanderbilt vs. No. 23 Kentucky (SEC Network)

It almost happened Thursday night. Take nothing away from Auburn, but the Razorbacks should have won that game more easily.

If the Razorbacks hope to advance to Saturday’s semifinals, where they would meet the winner of the Kentucky-Vanderbilt game, they have to maintain their focus and so they can cut down on their turnovers.

The Razorbacks had 19 turnovers against Auburn. The Tigers are a good defensive team, but not that good.

Arkansas’ key ball handlers Anthony Black, Smith and Davis combined for 11 turnovers with Black responsible for more than half of them. The Aggies will mash the Hogs tonight if Arkansas is that loose with the basketball.

Outside of the turnovers, Arkansas played well. The Hogs crushed Auburn on the glass 37-19. Arkansas shot 56% from the field and hit 17 of 23 free throws for 73.9%. All of that was key in the three-point victory.

Black led the Hogs 19 points, and added 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals to his stat line, but he also had 5 turnovers. Nick Smith Jr. had 14 points, including the game-winning bucket, but had 3 turnovers with 2 assists.

Devo Davis had 7 points, 10 big rebounds, 3 assists and 3 turnovers. Makhi Mitchell had a bounce back game with 12 points and 6 rebounds, and Jordan Walsh scored 11 with 4 rebounds.

After the victory, Arkansas’ NCAA Net ranking is No. 20. Whether the Hogs win or lose tonight, their Net ranking likely won’t move much.

Most are predicting Arkansas to be a No. 9 or 10 seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced on Sunday.

I’m not sure how much the Hogs could improve that seeding this weekend in the tournament?

Even if the Razorbacks somehow win the tournament, I not sure they would jump to a No. 7 seed.

But if this Razorback squad could pull off winning four games in four days to capture the proud program’s second SEC Tournament championship, it would give the Hogs a ton of momentum going into the Big Dance.

That’s a pipe dream, though, as long as the Hogs remain so careless with the basketball.