The No. 21 Arkansas Razorbacks (26-8, 13- 5) enter the NCAA tournament as a five seed in the West and will face twelfth seed Wofford (28- 6, 16-2) after losing in the SEC Championship to No. 1 Kentucky 78-63 (34-0, 18-0 SEC) on Sunday. It was the Hogs sixth time in the championship and the team’s first appearance since 2008.
Despite the loss, the Hogs played to a higher level in the championship game than they did in their last meeting with Kentucky in late February that resulted in an 84-67 rout.
The Hogs looked lethargic and overmatched in the last go around. And while still clearly overmatched on Sunday, Arkansas showed great moxie until the final buzzer. The Hogs kept it close in the first, managing to tie the game at 19-all after a 3-pointer from junior guard Michael Qualls, who came off the bench to score a team-high 18 points. But the Wildcats went on a 16-4 run to take a 41-25 lead into halftime.
In the first 12 minutes of the second half, Arkansas came within nine four times, but zero penetration inside and Kentucky’s superior size and depth were overwhelming. Sophomore forward Bobby Portis had 13 points, but he was only able to grab two rebounds. Portis was visibly frustrated at times, being matched up against Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein, who had 15 points and 10 boards and dominated the game in the paint.
Wofford has won its last 15 of 16 games, and this opening round matchup is no gimme, so Portis will have to overcome this same frustration that led to his worst performance of the season in the Hogs’ 60-49 win over Georgia (21-11, 11-7 SEC) in the semis of the conference tournament. The coaches’ pick for SEC Player of the Year snapped his 27-game double-digit scoring streak, managing only a seasonlow 4 points. This was only the second time all season Portis didn’t reach double digits.
Qualls led in the win with 15 points, and junior guard Anthlon Bell chipped in 10 off the bench to beat a Bulldog team that was banged up and playing without their starting junior guard Kenny Gaines. Georgia tied things up only once at 12-12, but the Hogs held a 25-17 lead at half and went on to control the tempo throughout the remainder of the game.
The Hogs’ first round 80-72 win against Tennessee was the solid performance fans expected from Portis, but shooting down the stretch became nonexistent. Arkansas missed 12 of its last 15 shots and did not make a single bucket from the field in the final 7:18. This allowed the Volunteers to cut the lead to four (69-65) with a 3:30 left.
It proved to be free throws that won the Hogs’ quarterfinal matchup, sinking 32/39 from the line to fend off the Tennessee surge late in the game.
Portis (9/10 FTs) had 26 points and 11 boards, Qualls dropped 20 and senior forward Alandise Harris tallied 14 points and nine rebounds in the win.
Portis will have to play like the lottery pick he is if the Hogs stand any chance of advancing deep into tournament play. But it appears as if all roads lead to Kentucky, and the Wildcats, who sent a clear message when they had mere team managers cut down the nets after winning the SEC Championship, have their eyes set on perfection