Arkansas coach John Pelphrey remembers the question after the lopsided loss at Kentucky. Was the season over?
"You asked it," Pelphrey said, nodding to a reporter. "I remember my response. No, there is a lot of basketball left. Anything can happen and it usually does."
Don't look now, but not only is the basketball season not over but the Razorbacks are alone in first place in the SEC West after Saturday's 82-79 overtime victory over Auburn before 15,036 at Bud Walton Arena. The Hogs are 12-11 overall, 5-3 in the SEC.
The Hogs won their fourth straight game, all of them by slim margins. All of them had one other common denominator: Courtney Fortson stole the show at the end.
Fortson, sophomore guard suspended for 14 games, scored 24 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and added seven assists against just three turnovers in a little over 40 minutes against Auburn. He has had similar performances in the other SEC victories.
Fortson scored 10 of his team's 15 points in overtime. He scored seven straight UA points following a 3-point shot with 2:10 left to give the Hogs the lead for good at 74-71. He gave the Hogs the lead in regulation with a layup with 14 seconds left, but Auburn sent it to overtime on freshman Andre Malone's rebound of an air ball with 1.6 seconds left.
Auburn's bid to send it into a second overtime came close. The Hogs led by just three when Fortson split a pair of foul shots with 4.2 seconds left. Frankie Sullivan fired a shot from well over halfcourt that bounced off the rim.
Pelphrey said his thoughts on his team's place atop the SEC West is similar to what he thought after the Kentucky blowout. There is much basketball left.
"We are very fortunate," he said. "Don't get carried away with where we are right now. It's only eight games and things are very fragile.
"I'm proud of our effort. I'm proud of what we've done. We have been fortunate. What I will say is that this team has heart. We've been behind in a lot of these games and we've fought.
"We aren't very good at the Xs and Os. We are not blessed with wonderful talent. We are not where we aspire to be in those areas. But give them credit for what they've done. They've fought. This could be totally different.
"We are very humbled by where we are. We could have lost any of those four. I understand where we are and I know what has been said and written about these guys. No one gave them a chance."
None of it has been easy.
"Nothing has been fun," Pelphrey said. "Maybe there will be some fun in the summertime. This has been work.
"We are exhausted. We are completely exhausted as a basketball team. We do have toughness and will and heart."
The Hogs trailed for much of the game. Auburn shot lights out in the opening 13 minutes to lead 36-27. Fortson began to take control to lead the comeback. The Hogs closed it to 38-36 at intermission, then bolted to a 46-40 lead over the first five minutes of the second half.
The Hogs led by 62-58 at the 4:10 mark on Rotnei Clarke's trey. But they would not score for the next three minutes. Auburn regained its long-range touch for the final minutes of regulation, taking a 65-62 lead on a pair of threes by Tay Waller, the last at the 1:08 mark.
Marshawn Powell's three-point play off a feed from Fortson tied it with 58.3 seconds left. Powell fouled out Auburn center Brendon Knox on the play.
"I want to see that one on tape," Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. "That one was one of those charge-block calls that are tough. We lost our center on the play.
"This was a heartbreaking loss on the road. We showed a lot of toughness with the way we played and fought back. We showed mental toughness."
Fortson knocked the ball loose on the other end, then dribbled out most of the 35-second clock. He drove for a layup with 14 seconds to play for a 67-65 lead. Auburn missed two out of control threes at the other end before Malone scrambled for the rebound on a wild shot that was a couple of feet short.
"It was a scramble situation," Pelphrey said. "We did a good job on their three-point guys, but we didn't get the rebound. We've had about four of those kinds of situations this year. I guess we like to play extra minutes and we want that for our fans."
The Hogs lost Mike Washington to a leg injury with 8:09 left in regulation. Pelphrey said it was a "blow" to his left shin. It wasn't clear if he'll miss Wednesday night's home game with LSU.
"We don't know," Pelphrey said. "It just happened."
The Hogs turned to a four-guard lineup with Washington on the bench. Stephen Cox, the former golfer, turned in 16 minutes and often was assigned to cover Auburn forward Lucas Hargrove.
"Glenn Bryant's going to be a tremendous player for us," Pelphrey said. "But Hargrove was hurting us. He's a natural wing and he can put the ball down. We needed someone to stop that and play defense. I never regret putting Stephen Cox into the game. He's always able to bring his defense into the game. He does a tremendous job for us. He can go for days without playing and when you call on him, he's ready."
Arkansas 82, Auburn 79 (Overtime)
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