ATLANTA — The disappointment and disbelief was evident in the actions of Arkansas’ players as soon as Ky Madden’s last-second shot missed the mark.
Freshman Bobby Portis rested his hands on top of his head. Guard Mardracus Wade had to be consoled by Scotty Thurman. One by one, the Razorbacks walked off the floor realizing what the 71-69 loss to South Carolina likely meant for their NCAA Tournament hopes, which seemed so bright just a week ago.
"I’m just hopeful," Arkansas guard Kikko Haydar said in the locker room a few minutes later. "I hope the committee gives us a chance. But I don’t know."
Arkansas (21-11) came to Southeastern Conference Tournament determined to prove it deserved an invitation to the 68-team field on Sunday, but left Atlanta with another early exit. The 13th-seeded Gamecocks (14-19) outmuscled the Razorbacks in the paint, outshot them at the free-throw line and advanced to a quarterfinal matchup against Tennessee with its second win in two days.
The spot was supposed to be reserved for Arkansas and an anticipated showdown between NCAA bubble teams. But the Razorbacks won’t get that chance after losing their seventh straight SEC Tournament game. The drought dates back to the 2008 tournament final and now includes six straight one-and-done appearances.
"This one here, this year, I thought we were especially primed for it," said Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, who believed his team finally was tournament ready because of its depth and recent play. "I also cautioned that first game, because you don’t know how your kids are going to come out and play. True to what I said, we saw (Thursday). We saw a team that came out and I thought we had the jitters early on."
Arkansas didn’t lack motivation. The Razorbacks knew they needed to stick around Atlanta for a couple of days to solidify their resume with the 68-team field’s announcement set for Sunday. Most NCAA Tournament experts considered Arkansas among the last four teams in the field as postseason play began this week.
A good start was particularly important after a 25-point loss at Alabama last Saturday, too. The Razorbacks held a team meeting before boarding the flight for the SEC Tournament and vowed they had regrouped and were ready to make a run.
"We planned on making a good showing," Arkansas guard Fred Gulley said.
But the first half — while not as bad as a 16-point effort at Alabama — was ugly once again. The Razorbacks built a 16-11 lead before falling into an offensive funk, making just four field goals over the final 11:59. Arkansas shot 33.3 percent.
The Hogs did get a boost when Anthlon Bell made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut South Carolina’s lead to 35-32. Arkansas then was able to take the lead early in the second half, too, but neither team could gain much cushion in a back-and-forth game slowed by fouls (48 total) and free throws (67 attempts).
Arkansas looked like it was on track to close strong, though, when Coty Clarke made a 3-pointer and Michael Qualls followed it with a layup to give the Razorbacks a 69-66 lead with 2:20 left. But it proved to be Arkansas’ final points Thursday.
South Carolina tied the game on its next possession at the free-throw line. Laimonas Chatkevicius made his first attempt, then missed the second. But South Carolina grabbed the rebound, Sindarius Thornwell was fouled and made both attempts as part of his game-high 17 points. It was South Carolina’s 15th offensive rebound.
"They were just more physical on the rebounding," said Arkansas forward Coty Clarke, who recorded a team-high 13 points and 5 rebounds. "They have 40 and we have 24. I mean, you should lose. So that’s been our weakness and we have been getting by with it, but it caught up to us (Thursday)."
The Gamecocks were able to slide into the lead when Wade missed a 3-pointer and Gulley fouled Brenton Williams with 53 seconds left. The 94.9 percent shooter went 1-for-2 to make it 70-69 and the score didn’t change after Thornwell missed two more free-throw attempts with 20.8 seconds left.
The Razorbacks drew up a play designed to get the ball into the post to Portis. The freshman got his opportunity in the paint, but a jump hook missed the mark.
"I got a great look at my jump hook," Portis said. "But it didn’t go down for me. Unfortunately, I shot it too hard and it went to the left."
South Carolina’s Michael Carrera grabbed the rebound, was fouled and went 1-for-2 from the line. Arkansas called a timeout with 2.9 seconds left, then inbounded the ball to Madden. The junior crossed halfcourt and took a shot that missed the mark, helping South Carolina wrap up its fourth win in the past five games.
"Earlier in conference play we were in a lot of close games," Thornwell said. "We lost those games. So it just showed that we have matured and we have grown as a team because early in the year, we probably would have lost because we were so young."
Arkansas, meanwhile, pondered the squandered opportunity.
The Razorbacks were outrebounded 40-24 and committed 28 fouls, which helped the Gamecocks go 30-for-41 from the free-throw line. It helped South Carolina win even though the Gamecocks shot 38.3 percent (18-for-47).
"We had a lot of mental mistakes going down the stretch," said Anderson, who added his team didn’t pay attention to details. "Putting guys on the free-throw line, fouling 94 feed, when all we’ve got to do is have confidence in our defense to get stops. We made stops. … But when you factor in they shot 40 free throws, you can overcome a lot of things, but you can’t overcome that."
It will likely cost Arkansas its shot at the NCAA Tournament as well.
The Razorbacks, who have now lost in their SEC Tournament opener 10 times in the past 13 seasons, will return home and wait until the field is announced Sunday.
Arkansas tried to remain optimistic about its hopes, but know they’re not good after losing two straight games to teams below .500. It means the Razorbacks are likely primed to end their season in the National Invitation Tournament.
"Something major would have to happen with some teams," Wade said of Arkansas’ chances. "Teams would have to lose. Right now I don’t know, but I’m probably leaning a little towards the NIT unless something dramatic or major happened."