This One Will Be Tough For Hogs To Take

FAYETTEVILLE -Judging by the bottle of water hurled at the giant Hog in the center of Bud Walton Arena by some goon who probably fancies himself a passionate Arkansas fan, this one will be mighty hard to swallow.

"I've really got to make sure I pick my team back up," said third-year Arkansas coach Stan Heath after Tuesday night's 64-61 loss against No. 23 Alabama.

"Big blow," said Hogs freshman forward Charles Thomas, sighing.

Just a few minutes after Eric Ferguson's 3-point try from the top left of the key clicked off the front rim with a second or two left, squashing Arkansas hope, the Hogs junior guard already was dressed in civilian shorts and a T-shirt, tugging on socks in silent obscurity in front of his locker.

Asked about that last shot, Ferguson looked downward and muttered.

"I wasn't comfortable with my shot," he said.

Saddled with foul trouble, Ferguson, the Hogs' best 3-point shooter thus far, had made just 1 of 6 attempts and missed his only trey before that last one.

Was he uncomfortable with the last shot because he was having an off-night?

"No, it wasn't that," Ferguson said. "Just something personal, man. Something personal."

Ferguson said it wasn't a family issue or even a strategy issue. He called it a "game" issue.

"I just didn't feel comfortable taking it," Ferguson said.

"I thought I had a good look, but it ain't going in every time. I had a good look, it just didn't go in, man."

That last shot, which came after Kennedy Winston missed his second of two free throws with 9.8 seconds remaining, had been called by Heath during the Hogs' last timeout.

"Coach told me to come down and told Darian (Townes) to set a pick for me and told me to shoot the 3, but ... I don't know, I just missed the shot."

Said Heath: "We had a good look at the 3, it just didn't go down."

And what about Ferguson?

"Eric wasn't the same player today," Heath said.

Because of the vagueness of his comments, we're not sure we understood exactly where Ferguson was coming from. But we know where the Hogs are (1-2 in SEC play) and we're they're going (to No. 11 Mississippi State on Saturday).

Looking around, you knew this was a big deal. Bud Walton Arena was crammed, former Utah coach Rick Majerus took up almost two chairs as ESPN's color commentator, animated limelight-loving official Ted Valentine was on hand and Heath sported a dark suit.

By the end of Tuesday night's first half, Alabama jerseys and shorts were dark-wet.

By the end of this, most Razorbacks lingered in the showers, soaking in the misery.

For young Arkansas, the goal was not simply to make the Crimson Tide sweat or to impress Alabama coach Mark Gottfried, which they did mightily.

"I think Stan's team has really improved," Gottfried said. "Now they're in games where it goes down to the wire. I'm proud of our win because I think we beat a good squad.

"That's a good basketball team."

The Hogs had given the Gators some nervous moments in Florida's sweltering O'Connell Center during last Saturday's 82-74 loss, but playing close no longer cuts it.

Moral victories count little, even with NCAA Tournament bracket folks.

So the Hogs came out sky-high and intent on netting a big win and holding serve at home, so crucial to their 20-win quest.

Playing smartly and working Alabama inside-out in front of 18,533 frenzied fans, Arkansas took a 33-24 lead with 4 minutes, 31 seconds left in the first half, capping the advantage after a Rashard Sullivan block of Albert Weber that led to a Ronnie Brewer alley-oop for an Olu Famutimi slam.

From there, though, Alabama took over. While the Hogs misfired from downtown - pulling the trigger way too often - the Crimson Tide chipped away. Earnest Shleton, perhaps the SEC's best pure shooter, nailed a trey from the top. After a Jermareo Davidson free throw, Shelton's drive made it 33-30. Big Chuck Davis knocked down a jumper from above the free-throw line and his two free throws put Alabama up 34-33.

"We just forced it," Heath said. "After you take one or two (long jumpers) and they don't fall, it's time to settle down some."

Last Arkansas possession of the half, Jonathon Modica passed up a hard working Townes inside and flipped the ball back to Thomas, whose long jumper at the shot-clock buzzer was flicked by Davis.

Arkansas actually left the floor to some boos after giving up the 9-0 run.

Led by Shelton (18 points), Davis (17) and Kennedy Winston (13), the Tide just kept rising, taking a 39-33 lead with 15:57 left on a Shelton to Davidson pass for a slam.

A couple of possessions later, Modica got a steal and fed Brewer for a lay-in to stop Alabama's run at 15-0 and close the gap to 39-35.

From there, the Hogs played gamely, closing to 51-50 with 7:40 left on two Townes free throws, and 56-55 on a Modica jump-stop during which he fell backward, leaving the ball bouncing about the rim before falling in.

The Hogs' luck stopped there.

Winston, an All-SEC forward, slammed after a short Ferguson miss, then hit a trey from the top for 63-57 with 3:02 left.

The key call was on Famutimi, who was guarding Shelton on the right baseline. Not much contact, but Winston got the call, making one of two freebies for the final score.

Brewer (15 points) led the Hogs and Townes (14) gave them a giant boost, particularly midway through the first half when he seemed unstoppable.

But Arkansas got away from its inside game. Alabama beat the Hogs on the boards, 32-25, and outshot Arkansas, 54.2 percent to 45.5. The SEC leader coming in with 12 steals per game (in conference play), Arkansas managed just 5 and got only 13 points off Alabama turnovers.

So next up is a trip to Starkville for a matchup that could open up or block Arkansas' road to the NCAA tourney.

"It definitely makes it a lot more important," said Brewer of Tuesday's loss and Saturday's game. "We're 1-2 in the conference and everybody knows how tough the SEC is."

These young Hogs are in the process of learning just that.

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