Arkansas built up a pocket of momentum over the final two weeks of the regular season thanks to improved play in key areas only to flop in its opening game against Florida in the SEC Tournament on Thursday.
KeVaughn Allen, a Little Rock native, did it to the Razorbacks again, driving a stake through their collective heart in Florida's convincing 66-50 win over Arkansas in Nashville, Tenn. Arkansas must now wait to learn if it has done enough to earn a bid to a secondary postseason tournament.
"Very disappointed in our performance," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. "We'd been playing some good basketball, so to come on this stage and not play as well as we'd been playing was kind of disappointing. ... They made plays. Some of their veteran guys made plays and some of their young guys made plays.
"We didn't survive, so we're very, very disappointed. ... It's a tough loss."
A senior who had scored 18 points on 5-of-31 shooting over the Gators' previous four games, Allen went on two crucial personal runs in both the first and second halves. He scored 17 points on 6-of-14 from the floor and 3-of-7 from 3-point range in the win, pushing his career scoring average against the Razorbacks to 16 points on 42 percent from distance.
Against all other teams, he averages 12 points on 33 percent beyond the arc.
Allen, though, wasn't the lone Florida player to torch the Razorbacks. Keyontae Johnson, a freshman, scored a career-high 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. He knocked down 8 of his 14 shots and was an issue on the glass throughout, finishing with six offensive rebounds - also a career-high.
The rebounding disparity, while not the only key to Arkansas' 15th loss of the season, was lopsided in favor of Florida. The Gators finished with a plus-15 edge overall and a 19-9 advantage on the offensive end. It's the second time in three games the Razorbacks allowed 19 offensive rebounds in a game - at Vanderbilt.
"You look at what it came down to - the offensive rebounding," Anderson said. "They shot it and went and got it, and I thought that was the difference in the game there. We didn't do a good job putting bodies on them. And their freshman, Johnson, I thought he had an outstanding game."
Arkansas associate head coach Melvin Watkins said Florida's toughness on the glass was too much for the Razorbacks.
"The guys were fighting, but just weren't physical enough today," he said. "The way we play, you might give up a few rebounds, but you can't have this big of a margin. When you do that, you set yourself up for failure."
Arkansas, simply, was lifeless and flat offensively with the exception of the game's first 10 minutes. The Razorbacks held a 19-12 lead with 9:52 left in the first half following a score from Daniel Gafford. Arkansas was then outscored 54-31 the rest of the way.
The Razorbacks scored just 22 second-half points on 6-of-24 from the floor. Gafford added eight points and Mason Jones pitched in five in a quick burst, but no other Arkansas player contributed more than three. Gafford finished with a team-high 15 points and six rebounds while Isaiah Joe added 12 - three in the second half, all on free throws.
Outside of Gafford, Arkansas made just 11-of-37 shots. Joe and Mason Jones combined to hit 6-of-21 attempts, and Jalen Harris and Gabe Osabuohien went a combined 1-of-10 and missed all six of their shots after halftime.
"I feel like we could have gotten anything that we wanted, it's just we didn't execute and shot ourselves in the foot down the stretch," Gafford said. "We couldn't get the shots we took to fall, and we just took some of the shots we settled on on offense most of the time also."
Part of the Razorbacks' offensive issues had to do with the Gators flipping what was a hectic pace early on to their favor in the second half. Turnovers plagued Arkansas, too. Harris finished with five assists and five turnovers in the loss, tying a season-high. He committed four turnovers in the final nine-plus minutes of the first half, allowing Florida to climb out of its eight-point deficit and take a two-point lead into halftime.
According to KenPom, Arkansas' offensive efficiency rating of 86.2 against the Gators is its third-lowest of the season. Two of its three worst offensive performances this season and five of the 17 lowest offensive ratings figures in Anderson's tenure have come when facing Florida.
"One of the things that hurts with inexperience is, on that floor, you've got to have a head on the floor," Anderson said. "That's where the leadership comes. ... Adversity took place and we met it head on then we started figuring out some things, but it's a challenge with so many new guys, but at the end of the day it falls under my responsibility."
Anderson also touched on potentially receiving an NIT bid in the coming days.
"I welcome the opportunity for them to continue to play," he said. "I told them, 'You may have some more basketball in you, but we have to see a better performance than what we saw tonight.'"