First thing's first: There is no such thing as a moral victory. Auburn (8-8, 2-1 SEC) had great chances to beat Arkansas in regulation and the first overtime, but a few missed opportunities on offense and poor shooting from the free throw line cost the Tigers. It was always going to be tough to take a victory home from Fayetteville, but the Tigers had the chance, and they couldn't capitalize.
Having said that, Auburn once again proved that it is a team making major strides forward this season. Midway through the first half, Arkansas went on a 17-0 run to turn a six-point deficit into an 11-point lead. Last year's Tigers would have folded like a card table at that point, but this team rallied back, closing the gap to seven at halftime before eventually leading by as many as six points with 8:20 left in regulation. After Arkansas (11-5, 2-1) opened the second half with a three-pointer to take a 37-27 lead, Frankie Sullivan and Rob Chubb did what senior leaders are supposed to do, and they took over the game. Sullivan and Chubb outscored the Razorbacks, 14-4, by themselves over the next 3:13 to get the Tigers right back in the game and tie the score at 41-41.
After nearly 16 minutes worth of play spent clawing back, the Tigers finally retook the lead on a Sullivan three-pointer with 12:36 showing on the clock. Over the next six minutes, Auburn's offense remained red hot, as the Tigers extended their advantage to 64-59 with 6:25 remaining. However, execution began to falter after that point, and the Razorbacks staged another run of their own.
Over the next 6:20, Auburn went 0-of-6 from the floor and committed four turnovers, three of which came from trying to force bounce passes to Chubb in the paint. Arkansas scored eight straight points to take a 67-64 lead, but Mardracus Wade missed two free throws with 25 seconds left, leaving the Tigers with some hope. Auburn fought back again. After a Sullivan miss from three, Noel Johnson corralled the rebound and found Allen Payne, who knocked down a contested jumper from behind the arc to tie the game five seconds from the buzzer. A strip on the defensive end kept Arkansas from taking a shot, sending the game to overtime.
In the first overtime, Auburn and Arkansas traded leads before finishing tied at 75-75. The Tigers made a nice defensive stand when the Razorbacks were holding for the last shot, but at that point, it was pretty clear that Sullivan and co. were wearing down. In the second overtime, that proved to be the case, as Arkansas outscored Auburn, 13-5, to claim the win.
It was a weird game, leaving fans feeling both hopeful and frustrated. If we had known going in that Auburn would have two scoreless stretches of more than five minutes, we wouldn't have given the Tigers a chance. But Tony Barbee's team showed serious heart -- and skill; don't discount the skill -- to rally twice and get the game to overtime. Still, Auburn had Arkansas on the ropes with six minutes left, and the Tigers couldn't close out the Hogs, thanks in large part to poor free throw shooting. The Tigers were 7-of-17 for the game, including 6-of-12 in regulation and 1-of-4 in the first overtime. It's hard not to see those numbers and feel a little sick after double-overtime loss. Auburn shot well -- 50 percent from the field, 44 percent from three -- and survived Arkansas's pressure, and all eight players that contributed on offense scored at least six points. Really, the Tigers did just about everything we could have asked, but a lack of focus at the line cost them a victory, and that can't be overlooked.
Sullivan led Auburn with 26 points, including five threes, and nine rebounds in 48 minutes. He tried to keep the Tigers close in the second extra session, but he just didn't have the legs left to connect from three-point range. Chubb finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds, four on offense, but five turnovers, including three down the stretch, and a couple of missed layups tarnished his performance a bit. He was a big reason Auburn got back into the game, but he also played a role in the Tigers' inability to finish.
Auburn returns home from its two-game road trip for a contest against Kentucky at Auburn Arena Saturday night. The Wildcats have more raw talent than the Tigers, but frankly, Auburn has been playing the better basketball lately. It's been a long time since anyone could say this about Auburn-Kentucky, but if Barbee's team doesn't find a way to win, it will be truly disappointing. This team is going in the right direction; it should continue against the 'Cats this weekend.