"It just hurts to know if we'd have got this game we probably would have went to the NCAAs and had a chance to win the SEC Tournament championship. Now we've got to get on a plane and go back, that's just a down feeling right now."
This down was all the deeper after the peak emotions of Friday's overtime victory against Kentucky, when twice the Dogs rallied from seeming elimination to make winning plays. Even then, State players agreed they should have owned an advantage over an Arkansas team that had played twice and survived a Friday nailbiter of their own. And both squads knew this matchup, the third meeting of the season, was for all intents a NCAA elimination contest.
Arkansas handled the pressures better. "It was their will to win," said senior forward Dietric Slater. "They were more eager than we were. It showed." It also confused Coach Rick Stansbury why the Razorbacks were ready to play and win and his team wasn't.
"We just weren't as sharp as we have been. It's one of those things as a coach you scratch your head about and wonder why."
The stat sheet offered clues. While shooting favored State slightly and Arkansas rebounded a bit better, the huskier Hogs were able to make a living in the lane. Paint-points favored the Razorbacks 42-26 as forwards Charles Thomas and Sonny Weeks tied for game-high scoring at 18 points each. Yet it wasn't just the big pigs who thrived in the painted wood; 5-11 point guard Gary Ervin scored 15 points of his own and over half came on aggressive drives at goal against an often flat-footed Dog defense.
It had to pain Stansbury to see the guard he recruited and played two years (2004-05) at point for State produce such a performance in this situation. But the coach could compliment his former player. "He played well, he jumped up and made some shots the second half. He made some baskets when they needed baskets."
Four Dogs had enough baskets to score double-digits but barely so. Guard Ben Hansbrough provided a team-best dozen points off the bench, while starting guard Jamont Gordon and Slater each had 11 and guard Reginald Delk 10. It was Rhodes who suffered through the longest day of his college career. He did not make a shot in 31 minutes, going 0-of-5 and needing ten free throw tries to collect eight points. Rhodes did gather nine rebounds and block three shots, but was not the post-presence State needed under the circumstances.
"We just didn't play as well," he said. "That's just a bad feeling when everybody doesn't give their all and we came up short."
Particularly frustrating for coach and team alike was that for a half State played well enough to take care of semifinal business. Not at first, though, as the Bulldogs seemed still celebrating their Friday triumph and missed five of their first six shots. Arkansas was no more accurate either, going 2-of-11 in the same span. But to Stansbury that also indicated something about the respective squads.
"The first two, two-and-half-minutes they had six offensive rebounds. That's about extra effort."
The Bulldogs roused themselves at last as point guard Gordon took time to work UA's man-defense for hard drives to the hole. One layup was good, another boarded and scored by sub-center Jarvis Varnado, and a third became a three-point Gordon play. Arkansas dropped back a bit and left guard Barry Stewart open the next trip for a trey and 12-11 Bulldog lead.
Stansbury left the green light burning for his gunners and from 9:40 to 7:13 four Dogs each sank a trey, stretching the margin to 28-19. It was still an eight-point game when Arkansas, which had no perimeter-production at first, warmed up. Freshman guard Patrick Beverley sank consecutive treys at 5:56 ad 5:14, and while he finished with just eight points those six might well have turned the entire day around.
The Razorbacks caught up at 33-all on a putback, then grabbed the lead 39-37 on a Stefan Welsh trey and three-point play from Michael Washington 46 seconds before halftime. Gordon had his shot blocked but the rebound stayed with State and Reg Delk threw in a 24-footer for a 40-39 intermission advantage. It had been all too eerily similar to the last meeting of the teams, when State saw a ten-point lead at four minutes of the first half cut to two at the halt.
If guard Beverley had saved his side in the first half, 7-0 Steven Hill stood out to start the second. With a 42-42 tie he took over at each end, scoring on a lob-dunk and hooking over Rhodes. In between those baskets he stuffed three State layup attempts, two by Gordon. Suddenly the Razorbacks were getting everybody open under the goal with layups by Thomas and Washington, making it a 52-43 UA lead at 15:25. Arkansas had hit seven of their first ten attempts.
"We got caught up in screens and double-screens and they got wide-open," said Rhodes. "It was one of those collapses on defense." State not only control of the game but themselves, too, as Gordon twice bulled into charges and went to the bench.
For the rest of the afternoon the Bulldogs were playing catch-up. Hansbrough scored a board to cut the deficit to 53-48 only to see Ervin respond with a gutsy drive and layup, then another jumper for a 11-point cushion as State went almost four scoreless minutes. Every Hog got into the act, even 6-10 Washington with a three-pointer at 7:22. The Bulldogs limited their own openings to rally with the clock stopped by missing free throws.
One of those, by Rhodes, turned out well as State rebounded and Hansbrough hit for three to make it 69-61 with almost six minutes remaining. The Razorbacks didn't rattle, even on a missed jumper, with Thomas scoring the rebound at 5:15. After Slater simply lost the handle Ervin drove for a looper and the margin was back to a dozen. The largest UA lead was 79-63 and only a couple of meaningless baskets by Gordon in the last minute made it a single-digit difference at the end.
But to Slater's mind this theme had been set right after opening tip. "They came out and threw the first punch and we never recovered from it." Not even when State caught up or took leads did the Dogs ever display their Friday confidence, much less efficiency.
"Between Jamont and Charles, they are 1-of-16 shooting the first 38-and-a-half minutes," Stansbury noted. "It's hard to beat any good team when the two guys you depend on are 1-of-16." The coach did note that 42 hard minutes against Kentucky took a toll on Gordon, while Rhodes never loosened up into his usual form.
But Slater put that in perspective. "We said this was (Arkansas') third game and our second. But if you want to win you're going to play hard every game." And this game, with all that was at stake, the Razorbacks played harder and better.
"The main thing is they wanted it more than us," said Rhodes.