Since dropping consecutive road games to Alabama and Florida by double-digit margins in mid-January, No. 11 Auburn has gotten itself back together and will take a four-game winning streak to Fayetteville to meet unranked Arkansas on Tuesday night.
The Tigers (19-2, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) are coming off a 75-66 win over Kentucky that moved them into a tie with the Wildcats for second place in the conference behind LSU.
“Kentucky is the best team we’ve played so I thought we stepped up, responded,” coach Bruce Pearl said. “I think we took a step from good to very good. Now the question is, can we build on it?”
The Tigers didn’t shoot all that well against the Wildcats, just 35.3 percent overall and 26.1 percent from 3-point range (6 of 23), but they won the rebounding battle 42-28. Of the boards, 17 came on Auburn’s offensive end, leading to a 17-5 advantage in second-chance points.
Auburn also took care of the basketball with just seven turnovers, down from 19 in their previous game at Ole Miss, but Pearl said they will be up against a different kind of defense when they meet the Razorbacks.
“Kentucky doesn’t try to turn you over much. Arkansas will,” he said. “It’s about matchups.”
The Razorbacks (16-5, 4-4) also are coming off a big win after beating Alabama 82-78 on the road to snap a three-game conference losing streak.
“It kind of felt like a must-win for us based on our last home game,” said coach Eric Musselman, whose Hogs lost to South Carolina 79-77 last Wednesday.
Guards Mason Jones (30) and Jimmy Whitt Jr. (26) combined for 56 points on 21-of-40 shooting as the Hogs rallied from a 12-0 deficit to start the gameagainst Alabama.
“I thought we just weathered the storm,” Musselman said.
The Tigers, too, stumbled getting out of the gate against Kentucky, falling back 9-2 in less than two minutes, but they were down only 35-34 at the half and finished by holding the Wildcats scoreless over the final 97 seconds of the game.
Crucial for the Tigers was their defensive play against Kentucky point guard Ashton Hagans and forward Nick Richards, both of whom were hampered by foul trouble. Hagans played just 20 minutes before fouling out with five points. Richards managed to play 38 minutes despite finishing with four personals but scored only seven points, half his team-high 14.4 average coming into the game.
Guard Samir Doughty and forward Isaac Okoro did the defensive work against Hagans, who was charged with six turnovers. Center Austin Wiley and forward Anfernee McLemore took on Richards.
“I thought Austin Wiley had a huge impact on the game — his physical presence,” Pearl said. “Nick Richards has been dominating lately, and Austin was just physically able to hang in there and negate some of it. And then I thought Anfernee McLemore, who gives away a lot of size, hung in there as well.”
After the trip to Arkansas, the Tigers have another big home game Saturday when LSU visits. The No. 18 Tigers are 17-4 overall but 8-0 in league play.
“We don’t get any easier,” Pearl said.
–Field Level Media