FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas needed a bucket to keep pace with Tennessee in the final minute Wednesday night, but couldn’t even get off a shot.
The ball went from player to player on the perimeter. Some tried to penetrate, but found no room. Others thought about taking a 3-point shot, but couldn’t pull the trigger. In the end, forward Coty Clarke tried to make something happen, had the ball poked away and turned it over to cap another empty possession.
The late-game problem has become a recurring theme for the Razorbacks.
"We have to be more assertive," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. "There comes a time when you have to play to win and I think our guys some times tend to play not to lose. You do that you get a little tentative."
Late-game struggles — especially on the offensive end — have played a big part in Arkansas’ 1-4 start in Southeastern Conference play. The Razorbacks have put themselves in position to grab important wins, but figuring out how to close out opponents has been the Achilles’ heel for a team sitting in a big hole in conference play with 13 regular season games remaining.
It’s a trend Arkansas (12-6, 1-4 in SEC) must change tonight if it is in another tight game against Auburn (8-8, 0-5) in Bud Walton Arena. The Razorbacks return to the comforts of home after losing two straight on the road in frustrating fashion and guard Kikko Haydar said Arkansas can’t afford any more missed opportunities.
"I just think we tend to get stagnant," Haydar said about the late-game woes. "Everybody wants to make the perfect play and we stop doing what got us there. It’s something that Coach has certainly addressed and something that we as players need to do a better job of taking the coaching and improving on. We watched film (Thursday) on our mistakes and hopefully we don’t make the same ones again."
It has been pretty repetitive in SEC play aside from a 16-point loss at Texas A&M.
Arkansas led or was tied with four minutes remaining in regulation the past four games (Florida, Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee). But the Razorbacks couldn’t win any in regulation and are 1-3 overall. The only victory came when Arkansas regrouped to beat Kentucky in overtime last week.
The biggest reason? Arkansas is 5-for-25 (20 percent) from the field in the final four minutes of regulation during those four games. There has been poor shot selection, erratic possessions, tentative play and missed buckets. Plenty of them.
The Razorbacks went 2-for-10 in the closing minutes against Tennessee. It included an 0-for-5 stretch that saw the Vols build a six-point edge.
Arkansas guard Fred Gulley said no one could stop the slide.
"It gets to where we’re just waiting on someone to make a play," Gulley said. "We’ve got to forget about the clock and forget about the score and just finish the game. Keep playing. If we have the opportunity, we need to attack. If we have the open shot, knock it down. We don’t need to make it just a possession-by-possession game at the end, and that’s kind of what we’ve been doing."
It doesn’t help that Arkansas has struggled to find a dependable go-to player who finds ways to end a drought. Michael Qualls, Bobby Portis and Alandise Harris were considered prime prospects to flourish in that role in SEC play, but each has struggled on the offensive end. They combined to score five points at Tennessee.
Guard Ky Madden has best handled the responsibility this season, but has made some poor decisions lately. It included an ill advised 3-pointer at the end of regulation against Georgia. Arkansas wanted to drive the ball to the basket.
"We have some guys we are counting on that aren’t making plays right now," Anderson said. "That’s the bottom line."
The Razorbacks will try to reverse the struggles against an opponent that has endured its own problems this season. Auburn carries a 15-game SEC losing streak into tonight’s game and has gone 3-20 in conference play the past two seasons.
The Tigers have been close to breaking through, but have struggled to make plays down the stretch like the Razorbacks. Auburn is 13-for-41 (31.7 percent) from the field in the final four minutes of its SEC games, according to AL.com.
Four of Auburn’s SEC losses have come by 10 points or less, including near misses against Ole Miss (65-62), Missouri (70-68) and Florida (68-61). So Anderson said Auburn, despite its losing streak, remains a dangerous team. His players agreed.
"We have our backs against the wall. They have their backs against the wall," Haydar said. "Every time we’ve played them it’s been close, so we expect a very tough game. It’s a very good Auburn team that’s come up short in some games."
Arkansas has won six straight in the series under Anderson, but none of the victories have been by more than nine points. The Razorbacks needed two overtimes to beat the Tigers 88-80 in Fayetteville last season.
So Arkansas wouldn’t be surprised to find itself in another close game with the Tigers tonight. The Razorbacks hope they’ll finally find a way to make plays down the stretch to put an end to its 1-4 SEC start.
"I think it’s time for us to start another streak," Anderson said. "That’s the mindset. Let’s start finishing. … That’s going to be the message to our guys. Let’s finish the win. We’re in position. We’re doing, I think, enough things to win ballgames. Now let’s finish the win."