FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas was impressive at home most of the season, developing a toughness en route to a record 17 wins in Bud Walton Arena.
But now it’s not clear anymore if the collapsing Razorbacks will win another game — at home or on the road — the rest of the season.
Arkansas’ late-season slide continued with a 79-68 loss to Alabama in front of an announced crowd of 11,200 in Bud Walton Arena on Thursday night.
Alabama freshman Rodney Cooper scored 17 points to pace four players in double figures, helping the Crimson Tide grab its first win in Fayetteville since 2005 and keep NCAA tournament hopes alive.
The loss dropped the Razorbacks, meanwhile, to 1-5 in their past six games. The stretch includes three straight double-digit losses, including two in a row at home to Florida and Alabama. It also appears to have the frustrated Hogs close to the breaking point with three games left in the regular season.
“Alabama came in with a sense of urgency and we have certainly been trying to make sure our guys understand,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Every game is a big game and you have to ratchet up the toughness factor and that’s what they did in the end. They kind of out-toughed us.”
The most disappointing aspect of Thursday’s loss was the fact Arkansas (17-11, 5-8 in Southeastern Conference) held a 12-point lead in the first half against Alabama (18-9, 7-6), which played once again without its two leading scorers and rebounders (JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell). The Tide also lost guard Trevor Lacey, its No. 4 scorer, after six minutes with an ankle injury.
But Alabama pulled off a double-digit win anyway, beating Arkansas’ pressure defense downcourt for easy buckets throughout the game. The Crimson Tide shot 58.6 percent from the field in the first half and finished at 55.1 percent in the game. Alabama — with no real inside presence without Green and Mitchell — outscored Arkansas 36-20 in the paint and got 19 more points at the free-throw line.
“We just broke down defensively,” Arkansas guard B.J. Young said. “Defensive breakdowns. Energy level went down. We let them start making a run on us.”
Said guard Julysses Nobles: “We let them get too many easy buckets. … We weren’t getting back and (our) man was just going past us.”
Young — who was coming off a career-high 31-point outing in the 30-point loss to Florida — led Arkansas with 21 points Thursday night. But the freshman’s performance was indicative of the rest of his teammates. Young scored 17 points in a first half, but only had four points after the break.
He made a three-pointer with 4:56 left in the first half to give the Razorbacks a 37-31 lead. But Arkansas didn’t make another field goal for more than 9 minutes, a span that stretched well into the second half. Alabama outscored Arkansas 23-4 during the drought to take control of the game.
“Arkansas come out offensively extremely hot and they were aggressive,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “They had success shooting the ball from three, driving the ball and getting to the free throw line. But offensively, we were aggressive. We were able to attack the press and have success.”
Alabama — which got 15 points from guard Andrew Steele and 14 apiece from Trevor Releford and Nick Jacobs — built as much as a 15-point lead in the second half. Arkansas finally showed signs of life late, closing to within five points on Mardracus Wade’s three-point play with 3:17 remaining.
But the Razorbacks ran out of gas, committing three of their 18 turnovers late. Arkansas, which went 8-for-11 behind the 3-point line in the first half, also went 0-for-6 after the break.
“It’s the mindset,” Anderson said of his team’s recent collapse. “I think the confidence level. That’s all. I think sometimes when adversity takes place, most good teams they still trust one another and it seems like we try to do it individually. And I think when you start doing it individually you can see the deficit gets bigger and bigger.”
Young — who was visibly down after the loss — also admitted fatigue may be setting in, too. Arkansas got Michael Sanchez back from a three-game absence because of a shoulder injury, but the extra player couldn’t help the Razorbacks keep constant defensive pressure on Alabama. Or keep the Hogs in contention for the SEC Tournament’s fourth seed.
Arkansas — which plays at Auburn on Saturday — now trails Alabama, LSU and Tennessee by two games in the conference standings with two remaining.
“We’ve just got to keep fighting and keep our head up,” Young said. “It’s nothing wrong with our team. We’re just sticking together. We had a couple of guys go down. We’re just getting adapted to the new system. But we’re fighting through everything.”