It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, wrote a wise man quite a few years ago in his book The Tale of Two Cities. This was the tale of two halves as Auburn rolled up a huge lead in the first half at Bud Walton Arena and watched helplessly as Arkansas erased it to score the season sweep of the Tigers, winning 75-73.
While Sharife Cooper was the centerpiece of Auburn’s offense, finishing with 25 points, he had little help and was partially taken out of commission with a concerted double team effort throughout the second half. Arkansas got a huge performance from Desi Sills, who provided the emotional support as well as on-court offense with 22 points.
Auburn came out on fire in a place where they haven’t had a ton of success. Jamal Johnson’s three a minute in gave the Tigers a lead they’d keep for the next 26 minutes, and the road blues kept pouring it on after that. Another field goal from Johnson gave the Tigers a 7-6 lead at the first media timeout, but Auburn would create separation with hard defense and a smooth percentage from the floor. Johnson’s second three doubled the Hogs at 12-6, and back-to-back buckets by Allen Flanigan and Sharife Cooper pushed Auburn’s edge to 21-8 at the midway point of the first half.
The lead kept increasing steadily as we neared halftime, with Auburn pushing it to 16 points on a dunk by Dylan Cardwell with seven minutes remaining, and then it hit the largest lead of the game at 19 points on Cooper’s second triple with 4:17 left and Auburn up 37-18. After that, the tone changed completely in favor or Arkansas.
First, the Razorbacks got two buckets from Jalen Tate in a short span, the second of which came from downtown and cut the margin to 13 points. Arkansas would slice the lead to an even 10 points, but Cooper hit a pair of foul shots in the closing seconds to give Auburn a 43-31 lead at the break.
Out of halftime, it was all Arkansas. A three from Jaylin Williams (Arkansas’, not Auburn’s) and a three-point play from Desi Sills brought Arkansas back withina. 45-41 deficit, before Jalen Tate’s jumped tied the ballgame at 47-47 with 15:02 left to play. The Hogs had run out a 16-4 run to start the half in knotting the contest. They took their first lead on a Jaylin Williams dunk moments later, but the lead pinballed back and forth over the next few minutes.
Auburn got a pair of threes from Javon Franklin to help a tepid offensive stretch, but Arkansas started to create a little room with Desi Sills attacking in the paint. His two foul shots gave the Hogs a 60-56 lead, and Auburn’s 17th turnover gave the ball back to Arkansas as we hit the under-8 timeout of the second half. After Arkansas had built a 66-60 edge, J.T. Thor hit a monster three to keep Auburn in it, and Sharife Cooper’s two foul shots pulled the Tigers within a 68-65 deficit, but Arkansas led 70-65 at the final timeout of the game.
The lead continued to grow, getting up to a 74-66 ballgame with 2:40 to play, but Auburn hung around and strung together a 5-0 run in the next minute. Eric Musselman called timeout after J.T. Thor stripped Davonte Davis, leading to a Cooper follow bucket to pull within one basket at the 1:41 mark. Cooper followed with a strong drive after a Razorback miss to cut the lead to 74-73 as the final minute ticked past, but his last second drive and shot fell off the mark in heavy traffic with just two seconds remaining.
In the end, Arkansas went from shooting 39% in the first half to shooting over 60% in the second half, while getting more aggressive on defense. Meanwhile, Auburn did just the opposite, shooting 59% in the first half before dropping down near 30% for the final frame. Auburn also had more trouble with turnovers, despite the odd relativity of 12 turnovers in the very successful first half, and fewer in the poor second half. The double team of Sharife Cooper was the key on defense for Arkansas, as once again Auburn didn’t have a reliable second piece of offense tonight. After Allen Flanigan finished with a career-high against Kentucky, he all but disappeared tonight. The Tigers desperately need Justin Powell to return from injury to give Auburn that extra weapon.