Arkansas Razorbacks blow halftime lead, come up short in 79-74 loss at No. 9 Tennessee Volunteers
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Hogs blow halftime lead, come up short against No. 9 Vols

JD Notae scored a team-high 19 points in Arkansas' loss at No. 9 Tennessee.
JD Notae scored a team-high 19 points in Arkansas' loss at No. 9 Tennessee. (Saul Young/Pool via News Sentinel-Imagn Content Services, LLC)

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Tennessee erased a seven-point halftime deficit and held off a late rally to beat Arkansas on Wednesday night.

The Razorbacks’ last chance was a potential game-tying three-pointer by Jalen Tate in the closing seconds, but it was off the mark and they fell to the No. 9 Volunteers 79-74 for their second straight loss.

“I thought it was a great shot,” head coach Eric Musselman said. “It hit the back rim, but it was straight. It wasn’t left, it wasn’t right. Obviously we were out of timeouts. I thought it was a good look.”

A pair of free throws iced the game for Tennessee and capped a wild final minute in Knoxville, Tenn., that started with Tate diving on a loose ball and calling a timeout to retain possession.

With a chance to tie or take the lead, Vance Jackson Jr. had a deep three rim out and Connor Vanover missed a point-blank follow with 43 seconds remaining. The Razorbacks stayed in it thanks to a quick layup by JD Notae and a clutch three by Tate, but couldn’t get over the hump because the Volunteers were perfect at the line down the stretch.

Despite going the final 4:50 without a field goal, they made their last 10 free throws and finished the game 20 of 26 at the stripe. That proved to be a significant edge over Arkansas’ 8-of-10 shooting on free throws.

“In my opinion, it was the free throws attempted,” Musselman said. “I didn’t know we were that physical. I think Tennessee’s pretty physical, but I guess we were physical tonight.”

The Razorbacks missed out on their first road win over a top-10 team since 2006, plus dropped to 9-2 on the season and 1-2 in SEC play with the loss. Tennessee improved to 8-1 overall with a 2-1 conference mark.

Although it wasn’t enough to get the job done, Musselman acknowledged that there were still some positives Wednesday.

After a putrid offensive performance against Missouri that saw Arkansas make just 3 of 23 layups and take other ill-advised shots, it had much better shot selection against the Volunteers.

“I was really, really happy with our field goal percentage, with our shot selection,” Musselman said. “That’s what was addressed leading up to this game, based on how poorly we were offensively against Missouri, so I think we took a step forward.”

That was evident in the game’s opening five minutes, as the Razorbacks attacked the rim quite a bit, with each of their first five attempts being layups. Although one was blocked, they made the other four to build a small lead.

One of the players who struggled the most against the Tigers was Vanover, but he put his 0-for-11 outing behind him by making his first three shots. His three-pointer - where he had been just 1 of 11 in the first two SEC games - at the 13:42 mark gave him seven points.

A couple minutes later, Jackson got involved with a three of his own during a 7-0 run that pushed the Razorbacks’ lead to 20-13 midway through the half. The former sharp-shooter from New Mexico was shooting just 29.0 percent from deep, but made 2 of 4 in an eight-point outburst in the first 20 minutes.

Tennessee played from behind most of the first half. It didn’t take a lead until Victor Bailey Jr. got a tough layup to fall with just under six minutes left to make it 23-22, but it was short lived. Moses Moody answered immediately with a 3 for his first points of the game.

Despite controlling the half, Arkansas had a hard time pulling away because of turnovers. It had 10 in the first 15 minutes and then didn’t commit another until Ethan Henderson had a costly one in the closing seconds.

It looked like the Volunteers might be able to cut into their deficit, but Vanover blocked a shot and Notae came up with the rebound. He took it coast-to-coast for a layup at the buzzer to give the Razorbacks a 40-33 halftime lead.

Turnovers continued to plague them in the second half, though, as they ended up committing a season-high 20. Tennessee turned those into 19 points and was able to quickly erase that halftime lead.

After Notae stepped out of bounds in the corner, the Volunteers tied it up at 42-42 on a John Fulkerson jumper with 16:11 remaining.

Jackson, who finished with 14 points on 5 of 10 shooting, answered with another three from the right corner to break the tie and then - after the Razorbacks forced a shot clock violation with a couple of deflections - he drove to the basked and got fouled. He made only 1 of 2 free throws, but it was indicative of his best offensive performance since the opener against Mississippi Valley State.

“I thought he did a great job,” Musselman said. “That’s one of the reasons that we recruited him, was when we played against him, we saw a lot of good things he did.”

Unfortunately, another bad turnover by Notae led to an open three-pointer by Jaden Springer that put Tennessee back on top 47-46 at the 12:45 mark. It was the first of three straight makes from deep for the Volunteers, which had made just 2 of their first 13.

As he so often does, Notae made up for his mistakes with an impressive scoring outburst. He managed to complete a rare four-point play when he got Bailey off his feet, made the three through the contact and knocked down the free throw. Less than 30 seconds later, he gave Arkansas the lead on a layup midway through the second half.

It was part of a team-high 19-point effort in which he shot 7 of 11 from the floor and, in Musselman’s opinion, had much better shot selection than in recent games.

“I thought that he was under control, he was composed,” Musselman said. “Some of his turnovers he maybe took one extra dribble instead of kicking it out, but JD has not played a lot of point guard.”

However, that proved to be the last time the Razorbacks were on top. Tennessee went on a 10-2 run to create a hole too big for Arkansas to dig out of in the frenetic final minute mentioned above.

Arkansas returns to Bud Walton Arena for a 2:30 p.m. CT tip against Georgia on Saturday. It will be televised on the SEC Network.

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