Trailing by as many as 13 points in the second half and nine with eight minutes left, Auburn (9-19, 2-12) made a valiant comeback to have a shot to win the game led by its defense and execution on the offensive end. Scoring nine of his 13 points in the stretch, junior Kenny Gabriel played inspired basketball but coach Tony Barbee said a bad start was the key to the struggles on Saturday.
"We executed our tails off offensively coming down the stretch," Barbee said. "We executed our tails off defensively coming down the stretch except for the last play. We broke down. We were switching everything and had a guy that didn't switch.
"I told the guys that even though that played happened we lost this game a long time before that play took place because of how we started," he added. "We started slow and now you find yourself digging out of a hole. I'm proud of the guys and the way they fought back but if you're a little better offensively we're not digging ourselves out of a hole the entire time."
Down seven at the break Auburn quickly fell behind by double-digits as two threes by the Razorbacks in the first two and a half minutes made it 33-20 Arkansas just like that. Auburn wouldn't go away though as a sticky defense kept the game within reach despite a lack of offensive production. Not reaching the 30-point plateau until a pair of Wallace free throws with 12:02 remaining, Auburn still trailed by just eight when the momentum began to shift.
Earnest Ross had 11 points, joining Kenny Gabriel as the only two Tigers in double figures.
Consecutive baskets by Earnest Ross and Chris Denson cut the lead down to four before Clarke would strike with precision. Hitting a jumper for Arkansas' first two-point basket of the half with 10:44 left, the senior scored seven points in less than two minutes to push the lead back to nine but again Auburn would answer.
Chipping away at the lead the Tigers got it back to four at 52-48 on a three from Ross with 4:30 left. Again Arkansas had a response as Marcus Britt drove the lane and had the ball knocked out by Wallace from behind. Rob Chubb deflected it right into the hands of Michael Sanchez who laid it in and got fouled. The free throw put Arkansas back up by seven with just under four minutes remaining.
Gabriel scored five of the next seven points with Chubb added the other two as the Tigers tied the game at 55-55 with just 29 seconds remaining, setting up the final shot for the Razorbacks. Working the clock down the Razorbacks got the easy basket and held on for the win.
The first half was a test of wills for both teams as Allen Payne scored the game's first two points just 19 seconds into the contest. An Arkansas three-pointer was countered by a Josh Wallace layup less than two minutes in but from that point forward the Tigers would be colder than cold in the first half. Leading 4-3 Auburn wouldn't score again for over four minutes until a Gabriel layup made it 13-6 Arkansas.
Moments later a free throw from Tony Neysmith and a Ross jumper cut the lead back to four with 12:44 remaining in the half. Just like they've been prone to do all season Auburn went into a funk offensively after that. Another four minute drought would pass before a Rob Chubb jumper with 8:20 left made it 19-11 Arkansas. That's as close as the Tigers would come until the last play of the first half.
Playing good defense on Julysses Nobles, freshman Chris Denson forced a turnover with just three seconds remaing and got the ball to Wallace streaking down the court. Launching a desperation three at the buzzer that appeared like it would come up just short, Wallace was bailed out as Marcus Britt tipped the ball away and was called for goaltending. That made it 27-20 Razorbacks at the half, setting the stage for the wild ending and Arkansas win.
"There is no quit in this team," Barbee said. "That's what we have to be about as our foundation. We are coming at you and if we lose it's because we ran out of time not because we gave up. This team has done that all year long. I'm proud of them for that."
Auburn shot just 35.8 percent from the field for the game but was an impressive 14-18 from the free throw line. The Tigers made just 3-12 shots from behind the arc while Arkansas was 6-6 with Clarke 3-7. Arkansas outrebounded Auburn 36-27 for the game.