Daryl Macon went through another midseason cold spell and it set the Arkansas basketball team squarely on the ropes. But as seniors should do, the skinny, fearless product of Little Rock Parkview just kept firing, and Mike Anderson had better be thankful that he did.
In an absolutely pivotal two-game dance at Georgia and then back home for Oklahoma State in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, Arkansas skated away 2-0, and did it in an unclean and distressing manner. This is a 15-6 team with a 4-4 conference record, and it's hard to fathom how it has shaken out that way unless you've watched the games unfold. Sometimes it's a listless and uninspired team that takes the floor, and then gives way to some kind of post-halftime monster that was in a strange hibernation early on.
Both of the wins that could have easily been losses stuck by that playbook and it was, in large part, Macon who singlehandedly rescued the Razorbacks from what would have been one damaging defeat or two kneecapping ones. Against Georgia, the Hogs felt they could extract a rare road win from always-maudlin Stegeman Coliseum, but another hideous start almost doomed that. With an earlier than typical start time, Arkansas was in a double-digit hole before dusk. But Jaylen Barford was instrumental in getting the Hogs bailed out of that 16-point deficit, which was narrowed to five by halftime and then disappeared entirely in a back-and-forth second half. Georgia's all-everything forward Yante Maten was predictably brilliant in moving inside and out and keeping defenders like Daniel Gafford and Dustin Thomas unsteady. But Macon, seemingly stewing over some clunker games in January, shook off all the cold.
In the second and clinching overtime, Macon was rather phenomenal and in many ways was playing against his training. He fired off three after three, as is common, but these were contested and the remainder of the foot-soldiers seemed anchored to the floor as the senior guard dribbled his way into a position to elevate and fire. And fire, he did: Macon poured home three long daggers in a two-minute span of the second overtime, the centerpiece of scoring the Hogs' last 16 points of the game and closing out the 80-77 win with two late free throws. The game was also notable for senior post Trey Thompson, who hardly dented the stat sheet, but played a tough 29 minutes after being seemingly out of shape all year, and contributing a huge block to deny Georgia's game-winner at the rim in the second OT.
Thompson got some mojo back from that, and against Oklahoma State, his seven points were important on a day where no one except Macon cracked double digits. That lack of balance meant that Thompson, who for all his faults and excluding a couple of bungled layups, actually played a critical offensive role against the Cowboys. He was largely ineffectual until about this stage of 2016-17, too, and so if he's getting in good work on the floor, it is of tremendous importance to the Hogs' February outlook. Thompson's 26 minutes Saturday were meaningful because Gafford struggled and Mike Anderson seems completely unwilling to give Adrio Bailey or Arlando Cook anything more than spot duty. The Forrest City product responded with six rebounds, two more blocks, and two steals, while committing no turnovers.
It was that defense that propelled the Razobacks to another desperation post-halftime surge. The Cowboys mirrored Georgia's early burst, going up 9-0, then responding to the Hogs' quick eight by running out 15-3 over the next several minutes. Arkansas's 13-point deficit was its biggest of the game, and again, the Hogs dutifully shaved it down to as little as three points before walking into the Bud Walton Arena lockers staring at a 40-32 deficit.
Where this game differed from the Georgia marathon was that the coaches, in a rather earth-shattering moment, did make some tangible halftime adjustments. There was a noticeable uptick in full-court pressure, and it paid immediate dividends with a 12-0 second-half run that snaked across exactly five minutes of clock. In other words, Arkansas didn't exactly employ an efficient attack during this stretch, but this was the defense that got the team on its late-season scald a year ago — OSU's depleted backcourt was tormented by the traps, and when they escaped, there would be a rushed shot to follow. There's that five minutes of hell we like to see, right?!
Troublingly, a mediocre officiating crew anchored by Pat Adams got involved in the mess, whistling an undeserving Barford for a technical foul after he showed emotion, appropriately, in the wake of an even worse personal foul call. Two replay reviews went inexcusably long and seemed imperfect. The usually disparate treatment of fouls in the paint vs. those on the perimeter was hard to predict, and it handcuffed both teams to some extent. Gafford, however, at least reached up without contact impeding him in the final 16 seconds to tip home an Anton Beard miss, and the Hogs escaped a couple of attempts near the rim by OSU to hold off the nearby rivals, 66-65.
Considering Arkansas has had so many anomalies so far this season, what with the freshman Gafford perhaps being better than envisioned as an offensive player but with returnees like Beard, Thomas, Cook and Thompson not playing quite as steadily as seniors should, Arkansas has managed to get through the first half of conference play in relatively good standing. A road win at College Station against a puzzling Texas A&M team would be of significant weight down the line, and then there's a revenge game at Louisiana State on Saturday that could loom very large for this team's postseason hopes. A couple of those now-signature nail-biters would be just fine, seeing as how the Hogs have managed to win 10 of 11 one-possession games, and would perhaps show the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee that this team has a curious penchant for getting itself into and out of tight spots.