BENTONVILLE - No stage is too big for Daniel Gafford.
In a game hyped as a showdown between the El Dorado star - an Arkansas class of 2017 verbal commit - and Bentonville's Malik Monk - a Kentucky signee - and televised nationally on ESPNU, Gafford played the same as he has all season.
"Daniel doesn't live with all that hype," El Dorado coach Gary Simmons said. "If this was a home game, he would go straight home and play video games. That's just the kind of kid he is. Daniel doesn't over-play anything."
Despite having what Simmons considered an off shooting night and battling injuries, Gafford - a four-star center and No. 38 overall player in the 2017 class - scored 18 points and pulled down 18 rebounds in the Wildcats' 80-59 loss to Bentonville.
(Monk scored 23 of his 29 points in the second half and had 15 rebounds for the Tigers.)
Gafford was 7 of 11 from the floor, but wasn't able to finish a few shots at the rim while being fouled. He also made just 4 of 11 free throws.
"I think I played pretty good," Gafford said. "I was getting beat up a little bit down there on the post. That's just something to work on. I also need to work on my free throws."
The contact Gafford endured on the post was an area Simmons was upset about after the game. While there were rule changes to lessen that contact, he said the referees let it slide, just as they have all season.
"Bentonville did what other people are doing," Simmons said. "(Referees) are allowing players just to beat him to death. I know it, you know it, everybody knows it. When's it going to be changed?"
Even with the physical nature allowed by the officials, Gafford managed to draw eight fouls, six of which led to free throws. He also lived on the glass, especially on the offensive side, where he had 11 of his 18 rebounds.
He said he wasn't bothered by the extra contact.
"I've gotten beat up so much by the teams we've played, I'm used to it," Gafford said. "It's like my little brother pushing me around in the house."
It also didn't help that El Dorado's outside shooting went ice cold, which would have opened up the middle for Gafford.
The Wildcats came into the game shooting above 50 percent from three-point range, but made just 4 of 23 (17.4 percent) against Bentonville.
In the second half, Gafford was hampered with an ankle injury, as well.
Just before halftime, he came down on Bentonville big-man Tyler Robinson's foot, causing him to roll his ankle. Gafford said it felt like it almost snapped, but he was able to limp to the bench after laying on the court for a few seconds. Instead, his ankled swelled up like a balloon.
Still, he started when play resumed in the third quarter.
"To come out and score the first six points we had in the second half...I just can't say enough about his effort," Simmons said. "He's a special player. He didn't have a great shooting night tonight, but he's very capable of putting up 35, 40 points."
To Gafford, though, coming back and playing was no big deal.
"I'm used to it because I roll my ankle almost every day," Gafford said. "I'm so used to it that I just tightened up my shoe and thought about something else."
Honestly, he was just happy to be playing Friday night.
With central Arkansas getting hammered with winter weather, El Dorado wasn't able to ride charter busses to Bentonville like it had planned. The Wildcats made the six-hour trip in their traditional yellow school busses, instead.
"Really, I was just hoping we would make it," Gafford said. "I was hoping and praying we wouldn't get stuck. Then I was hoping no one would get seriously hurt and we could play tonight."
While the trip ended with a loss, Simmons said he was proud of the way his team played, especially Gafford.
"Daniel is mature," Simmons said. "I think his post game is coming. He's a sponge.
"He just works hard, works on the boards, and when it's time for them to give (the ball) to him, he'll get it done. He is an incredible team player."