For the third straight season, the University of Arkansas ended its season in the opening round of the SEC Tournament.
South Carolina did the trick this season as Michael Boynton tossed in 32 points and Josh Gonner 18 Thursday afternoon to lead the Gamecocks to a 91-81 victory over the Razorbacks in a game where there were over 50 fouls called and over 80 free throws shot.
Arkansas lost despite scoring a whopping 63 points in the second half at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga., because they put in just 18 points in the first 20 minutes before being challenged at halftime by second-year head coach Stan Heath.
"That definitely wasn't a good effort in the first half," Arkansas assistant coach Ronny Thompson said. "Coach (Heath) addressed some things at halftime and he told the guys that we were going to make changes in the second half. He was just trying to find five guys that wanted to give 110 percent effort and we finally found that. We got into a groove, started humping it a little bit. I think it was one of those deals where youth seeps in."
Michael Jones had all 15 of his points in the second half, Jonathon "Pookie" Modica 14 and Olu Famutimi and Eric Ferguson added 13 each as six players scored in double figures for Arkansas (12-16), who had beaten South Carolina 82-66 in Fayetteville during the regular season.
Kendrick Davis and Vincent Hunter had 10 points each in the loss, which meant the Razorbacks lost their last four games and ended the campaign by losing eight of their last nine contests.
Heath made it clear in the locker room that this season and this effort was unacceptable according to Thompson.
"Coach addressed a lot of things in the locker room after the game," Thompson said. "He made it clear to the guys that the future is bright and is going to be bright because he is going to make it bright. He wants to find a few good men. He said Razorback basketball is built on pride and dedication and he wanted to make it clear to the guys that it is going to be back. It is going to be back very soon and if you don't want to buy in and give in to things he is trying to express to you than you are going to have a problem."
South Carolina (22-9), who likely clinch an NCAA Tournament berth, hit 39-of-50 free throws in a game where Arkansas connected on 26-of-31.
Boynton, who hit 5 3-pointers, was 17-of-19 from the line himself while Famutimi hit 9-of-10 free throws for the the UA squad, which was outrebounded 34-32 and had just six assists.
The Razorbacks' 39-18 halftime deficit that turned into a 24-point disadvantage early in the second half before the injection of Jones got his team going as Arkansas rallied to push its field goal percentage to 47 percent for the game.
A late flurry that got them to within 84-76 on Jones' old-fashioned three-point play with 1:25 left was stemmed by good South Carolina free throw shooting from that point on.
"The guys fought, they clawed, but it was a little too late," Thompson said. "We dug ourselves such a hole. If we come out initially with that passion and that fire, I think it definitely would have been a different story."
Arkansas had an 11-minute stretch where it did not make a field goal.
"That's been our problem throughout the year," Thompson said. "Several times, certainly the last three or four games, we've hit a span in the game where we just didn't hit a shot. I think a lot of that has in some cases to do with ballhandling, a lot of it has to do with decision making and a lot of that has to do with understanding which guys are going and understanding how and when it is a necessity to get that guy off offensively."
Ronnie Brewer, Arkansas' talented freshman who was named The Birmingham News' SEC Freshman of the Year on Thursday, only scored two points in the game and did not take a shot in the first half. He only took one shot in the entire game.
"Ronnie's fighting a little bit of a cold," Thompson said. "Granted the cold came at the worst possible time, but as Coach told them at halftime and at the end of the game, he is sure some people that were on South Carolina's team with a cold. This is postseason play. It is time when you have got to hump it. It is a time when you nicks, knacks and bruises and you have got to play through that. That is a little part of the maturation process that I think has to take place. I think Ronnie will learn from it and be much better prepared next year."
Tarance Kinsey added 14 points and Carlos Powell added 13 for South Carolina, who advances to play LSU in the second round on Friday.
Arkansas, which will add as many as eight new players next season , has to look to next season.
That might actually do so without Thompson, who is a candidate for the James Madison head coaching job.
"Ultimately, I definitely without a doubt would like to be a head coach," Thompson said. "That is something in my future. That is something that I have gone through my whole career preparing for. What the cards will hold for next year, I really don't know. We have been preparing so much for each and every one of these games that you don't really have time to map things out.
"But I do want to say that I more than happy at the University of Arkansas and I am more than happy with the support that I have recieved since I have been here and I am more than confident that one day the sun is going to shine very, very bright at the University of Arkansas in the men's basketball program.
"Whether I am here, whether I am not here, for how long - I really could not tell you," Thompson added. "I am happy. I am not aggressively trying to leave here. You just have to go down the line and see what happens."
South Carolina 91, Arkansas 81
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