Pelphrey's Return

LEXINGTON, Ky. — No words or condolences necessary, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long felt John Pelphrey's pain. The Razorbacks coach strolled out of Arkansas' Rupp Arena locker room Saturday and bumped into Long, moments after a draining, disheartening 63-58 loss at Kentucky.

Pelphrey stopped, firmly shook Long's hand and the two men shared a brief moment of eye contact. No words, just similarly pained grimaces that made this glaringly apparent: This wasn't any ordinary loss.

This was devastating. This was stomach-churning. This was the kind of defeat that will result in little sleep the next few nights. And the Razorbacks mirrored Pelphrey's disappointment.

"This was a game we had to win," Arkansas point guard Gary Ervin said. "We have first-place (in the SEC Western Division) at stake. This was a game we should've won, and we let it slip away. Right now I can't feel good about anything. We lost a game we should have won, and it hurts real bad."

Just as Ervin feared, the Razorbacks' inability to squeak out a win at Kentucky cost them in the division standings. Mississippi State held on Saturday at South Carolina, extending its division lead to two games with four remaining, surely making the Hogs ache even worse.

The fifth-largest crowd in the history of this storied college basketball venue (24,371) watched Arkansas nearly topple its Wildcats for the second straight time in Lexington. Two seasons ago, Ronnie Brewer and the Razorbacks — four of this team's seniors included — blew an 18-point first-half lead in a two-point defeat.

A similar scenario unfolded Saturday afternoon after the Kentucky faithful roared in recognition of Pelphrey, the former Kentucky standout whose No. 34 jersey is draped from the rafters.

Arkansas (18-7, 7-5) held the lead for the first 13 minutes, 11 seconds, playing loose, looking confident and executing efficiently. But suddenly, the Razorbacks reminded those who follow the team closely how erratic and inconsistent they can perform. They gave up offensive rebounds. They were beat to loose balls. And they went 8:23 without a field goal.

In between Ervin's 3-pointer and a Sonny Weems dunk, Kentucky (15-10, 9-3) managed to turn a 17-12 deficit into a 25-22 lead. The Hogs finished the half with just those 22 points, a season-low total for any half.

"There are stretches where we just don't sustain a high level of play," Pelphrey said. "I think we are making progress. But I think we can get tougher. I think we can get nastier. We're going to stay on these guys, and those stretches are going to go away."

Pelphrey said this after the Razorbacks fought back but fell short as Kentucky won its seventh straight game over Arkansas in Lexington. He watched with pride — there were many fist-pumps — while his Razorbacks rallied, while Weems dumped in 22 of his game-high 26 points in the second half.

But another one of the stretches Pelphrey alluded to doomed the Razorbacks. Arkansas led 53-50 with less than four minutes left and seemed poised to finally record an elusive road victory in a hostile environment.

"I was sure we were going to win the game," Weems said. "All we had to do was get a couple of stops."

The Razorbacks couldn't keep Kentucky seniors Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford from willing the Wildcats to their sixth straight victory, though. Bradley and Crawford each came through with a crucial bucket in the final moments. On the other end, Ervin and Charles Thomas botched layups.

Afterward, Pelphrey tried his best to remain positive. But talking outside Arkansas' locker room with former Kentucky standout Scott Padgett, Pelphrey spoke like a man frustrated, like a coach baffled by his team's unpredictable nature.

"We've got some work to do here," Pelphrey said.

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