AUBURN, Ala. - Late in the turnover-filled first half of the University of Arkansas' game at Auburn Saturday afternoon, it appeared the Razorbacks might be fumbling away yet another SEC road contest - and with it most likely their season as well.
But Ronnie Brewer and his teammates made enough of a stand in the final 22 minutes of action or so - a big portion of that coming from the free throw line - and finally got one to go their way with the visiting uniforms on.
Brewer had a career-high 26 points, Jonathon Modica 17 and Charles Thomas a double-double off the bench on his birthday with 12 points and a career-high 12 rebounds and the Razorbacks used a 11-0 second-half run to take control and strong free throw shooting throughout the game to down the youthful Tigers 68-52 before 6,100 fans at Beard-Eaves Coliseum.
"We came into this game knowing our backs were against the wall and that we needed to fight through it and we showed a lot of toughness, we showed a lot of character and that is what I am most pleased about," Arkansas head coach Stan Heath said. "We got tremendous effort from a lot of guys. "
Arkansas (13-5, 2-3), which had lost it first two road games this season and who was just 2-25 on the road under Stan Heath in four years, hit 21 of its 25 free throws in the game to hand Auburn (8-7, 0-4) just its second loss at home this season in 10 games.
That included Brewer going 11-of-14, Thomas 6-of-7 and Modica 4-of-4 and that trio shot all of the free throws on the day and actually scored 33 of the Razorbacks' 35 points in the second half.
They did so playing with retro uniforms of the 1977-1978 Arkansas Final Four team - which had a trio of pretty good players itself in Marvin Delph, Sidney Moncrief and Brewer's dad Ron.
"We did a lot of those little things that we have been talking about," Heath said. "Making those free throws, grabbing a rebound, being a little bit tougher finishing in and around the basket."
Darian Townes had the only other two points for Arkansas, who went with the 6-8 Thomas - who turned 20 on Saturday - as the tallest player on the floor for a lot of the second half.
"He (Thomas) had a monster game and played very hard," Heath said. "We had to go a little bit unorthodox ourselves because Auburn put four and sometimes five guards out there on the floor. Especially in that second half we had to go a lot smaller and Charles ended up being our center and Ronnie was at the power forward and Pookie (Modica) Dontell (Jefferson) and Eric (Ferguson) manning the ball and handling the pressure.
"...Charles seemed like he was getting everyone of those rebounds and he was was physical attacking the rim inside," Heath added. "He gave us some second and third opportunities with those rebounds to allow the clock to tick in our favor."
Thomas said he was striving for some even better numbers.
"I was really going, just jumping around and going for 20 and 10, but I will take 12 and 12 with a W any day," Thomas said. "We just had to match their intensity. Auburn is a great team with a great coaching staff and we wanted to run with them. Coach ‘s gameplan was they can run it at us, but we are going to run it right back at them."
Seven of his rebounds came on the offensive end.
"They just being hungry for some rebounds," Thomas said.
Ronny LaMelle had 16 points to lead Auburn, Rasheem Barrett added 12 and Joey Cameron grabbed 13 rebounds for Auburn, who had gone 8-1 at home before Saturday, a day that also featured a Legends game beforehand to celebrate their 100th year of basketball although alum Charles Barkley was a no-show.
"Auburn had only lost one game here and had played everybody very, very tough and that was the largest margin of victory in this building and I think that says a lot about our players," Heath said.
The Razorbacks trailed by as much as five points in the first half in which the two teams combined for 27 turnovers.
But late 3-pointers by Brewer and Eric Ferguson helped Arkansas take a 33-29 into the break.
"We were trying to hit that home run and weren't just trying to move it, get it inside, get it outside and get it back inside - just hit some singles," Heath said. "Take what they give you, make them work a little bit, spread them out and then some good thing would happen. But I thought in the second half our team made the adjustments we needed to make, got a little bit more quickness out there, made some threes and loosen things up."
Despite going for his career-high 26 points, Brewer actually started off sluggishly in a game where he had 18 of those points after halftime.
"He had a terrific game," Heath said. "He did a great job of taking it stronger, especially after the few possessions. I had to get on him and said "Ronnie, you just got to go up there and dunk it or go through the contact. They are not going to bail you out by finessing it. I thought he did a much better job of either drawing the foul or just going up there and finishing. He's a guy you would think would have had a 30-point game here or there and he may get one down the one. He wants to win."
Jefferson, the SEC's assist leader and a focus of attention late in the Alabama loss, came back Saturday with a solid floor game with 7 assists, 5 steals and 5 rebounds while helping to force 23 turnovers by Auburn.
"I thought our team did a much better job of handling the pressure in the second half," Heath said. "We had 12 turnovers at halftime and had to focus and do a better job in that area and we cut it down to seven while forcing a lot of turnovers their way."
Auburn kept Arkansas within striking distance until the 11-0 run, which was capped by Modica's 18-footer that pushed Arkansas ahead 52-36 with just over 14 minutes left in the game.
Auburn, like Alabama did while rallying from 13 down on Wednesday night in an overtime win over Arkansas, rallied from that double-digit deficit with LeMelle's 3-pointer and Quantez Robinson's lay-up giving the Tigers 10 unanswered points and cutting it to 52-46 with 10:45 remaining in the contest.
But this time Arkansas did not fold and continually stepped to the free throw line in securing the victory, despite Auburn making several runs.
Brewer's two free throws ended that spurt getting Arkansas back up by 8 at 54-46 and he just kept going to the charity stripe.
He was fouled on the Razorbacks' next offensive possession a call that drew a technical on Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo and left Brewer with four free throw attempts.
Brewer netted three of those for a 57-46 advantage with 9:30 left and then Modica got to the line for a two more and a 59-46 lead with 8:15 showing on the clock.
Auburn did get it back under double digits and actually cut it to 60-52 on Daniel Hayles' free throws with 6:15 showing on the clock.
But that was as close as Auburn would get - because the Tigers would not score again the game and Arkansas put it away with the final eight points of the victory.
"In four of our five conference games we have been the team that has shot the majority of the free throws and that's why in our last game that it at least did go a little bit closer (Alabama shot 33 to Arkansas' 9)," Heath said. "But I thought our team attacked very well today, took it strong and got rewarded because of that type of play."
The Razorbacks shot 38 percent both from the field overall and behind the 3-point line and the board battle was deadlocked at 35-35.
Arkansas will try to win its third game in its last four SEC contests and even its league mark at 3-3 when it hosts Ole Miss on Wednesday ahead of a Sunday afternoon nationally televised game at Kentucky.
"I think our team was anxious to get on the road and get a win just to eliminate that type of stigma," Heath said. "Now we can go back home and protect our home court and try to get on a little bit of a run. The best thing we can do is put some back-to-back-to-back wins together and put ourselves in position to challenge."
Arkansas 68, Auburn 52
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