Another Second-Half Letdown Dooms Arkansas

AUBURN, Ala. — A pained look spread across his face, freshman guard Rotnei Clarke seemed even more deflated Wednesday night than after any of Arkansas' previous seven Southeastern Conference losses.

Memories of building a 10-point second-half lead during the Razorbacks' 75-62 defeat at Auburn bounced around in his brain. So did Arkansas' early season victories over Oklahoma and Texas. Thriving moments in recent losses to LSU, Tennessee and Mississippi State couldn't escape him, either.

The problem to Clarke, his teammates and his coach, John Pelphrey, isn't that Arkansas has now dropped eight of its last nine games. To them, the truly maddening part of this recent downturn is the manner in which the Razorbacks have lost them.

"It's frustrating knowing that we can win these games," Clarke said. "It's just a matter of us sustaining play."

This past Saturday, the Hogs (13-9, 1-8) sustained for the entire first half at Mississippi State. The week before, they sustained for about 15 minutes at LSU and for about 30 minutes against Tennessee. They were somewhere in the middle Wednesday night before a tiny, announced crowd of 4,347 in Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum.

For a true comparison, Arkansas fans need only think back to the way Auburn (15-9, 4-5) beat the Razorbacks the first time this season. The Hogs went scoreless over the last 6 minutes, 35 seconds in their 73-51 loss to the Tigers on Jan. 24 in Fayetteville.

A similar finish doomed the Razorbacks on Wednesday night. Stefan Welsh gave Arkansas a 60-59 lead on a 3-pointer with 6:36 to play. Auburn outscored Arkansas 16-2 during the rest of the contest.

"We finally got some momentum going, and you saw what happened from there," said Auburn's Lucas Hargrove, who had 14 points and eight rebounds off the bench.

Through 21-plus minutes, the Tigers looked as if they'd never string together many successful possessions.

Arkansas led from start to finish in the first half. The Razorbacks started strong, nailing six of their first eight shots — three which were 3-pointers by Clarke — to build a 16-7 lead. And despite the 17-minute, 37-second absence of Michael Washington because of two early fouls, the Razorbacks held on for a 39-31 halftime lead.

One possession seemed to change the game's entire feel, though.

The Razorbacks led 43-33 when Washington and Brandon Moore clanked consecutive close shots off the rim. Auburn responded with an immediate 20-6 spurt that covered 7:04 and resulted in a 53-49 advantage. In the process, the Razorbacks resorted to the bad habits that hindered them in their previous league losses.

Pelphrey was mostly disappointed in his offense's sluggishness and his defense's inability to secure rebounds (the Tigers finished with 15 offensive boards).

"When Mike (Washington) got the ball inside, there wasn't a lot of movement around him," Pelphrey said. "He settled for some shots, and we all settled for a lot of shots on the perimeter. I don't know if we got into the bonus in the second half until basically the game was over with."

That poor shot selection led to Arkansas shooting 26.7 percent after halftime and recording its third-worst scoring half this season. The first came during the second half of the Hogs' first loss to Auburn.

Still, however, the positive flashes were hard to ignore for Pelphrey and his players, even in the sore aftermath of their fourth consecutive loss. Hard to ignore because they reveal there's so much potential for a team that feels it's better than its record indicates.

"I still believe in these guys," Pelphrey said. "Maybe I'm crazy, or maybe I'm the guy that needs to have his head checked. But I refuse to believe we're the last place team in this league. When I see these guys come out and play like they did in the first half, I believe that these guys can do it."

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