Kentucky roared into Rupp Arena having won 12 of its last 13 games. Talk of winning the Southeastern Conference and gaining a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament abounded.
Arkansas limped into Rupp Arena on a five-game losing streak. An 87-80 home loss to Texas A&M on Saturday led to some soul searching.
“They’ve got to look in the mirror …,” Coach Mike Anderson said after that game. “Maybe some of these guys are hitting that wall. … They’re hurting. … We’re still in the hunt for something. I don’t know what it is.”
When asked how his team could compete with mighty Kentucky, Anderson said, “I think we just go play. Go play basketball. It’s a team we haven’t played this year, and sometimes teams bring the best out of you. So we’ll see.”
What unfolded showed how every game is its own adventure. Kentucky’s come-from-behind 70-66 victory was certainly adventurous.
UK trailed by 15 early in the second half. Then the Cats’ defense limited Arkansas to one basket over the next 12 minutes.
Kentucky improved to 24-4 overall and 13-2 in the SEC. The latter kept UK in a tie for first place with LSU, which defeated Texas A&M. Tennessee can make it a three-way tie by winning at Ole Miss on Wednesday night.
Arkansas fell to 14-14 overall and 5-10 in the SEC. The Hogs’ six-game losing streak became the program’s longest since 2009-10. Arkansas also lost for the ninth time by seven or fewer points.
Despite the disparity in records and momentum going into the game, Kentucky’s victory was not secured until the final 1.3 seconds. Immanuel Quickley made two free throws to set the final score.
After a three-pointer by Mason Jones reduced Kentucky’s lead to 66-65, Arkansas called time. Then after eying Arkansas’ lineup, UK called time.
Ashton Hagans inbounded the ball to Tyler Herro. Fouled with 5.4 seconds left, Herro made both free throws. That made him 52 of 53 from the line since the North Carolina game.
Herro had career highs in points (29) and three-point baskets (five). Roommate Keldon Johnson chipped in 13 points, while Nick Richards grabbed 15 rebounds.
Freshman Isaiah Joe made five three-point shots and led Arkansas with 19 points.
Kentucky turnovers and Joe’s shooting contributed to Arkansas taking a 39-28 lead into intermission. That represented UK’s largest halftime deficit since trailing Duke 59-42 at the break in the season’s opening game.
Kentucky committed 12 turnovers in the first half. That was more than UK had in 11 of its previous 27 games.
For a while, the Cats were on pace for nearly 40 turnovers. UK had 10 inside the first 11 minutes. And the turnovers were widespread. Seven of the eight UK players who had been in the game at that point had turned the ball over at least once.
It was at about that point that Kentucky resorted to a four-guard lineup. Perhaps to combat an Arkansas edge in quickness, the Cats had Quickley, Johnson, Hagans and Herro join PJ Washington.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Kentucky stopped turning the ball over.
Joe proved a more lasting problem in the first half. He hit three three-pointers before the second television timeout. The third put Arkansas ahead 13-11 with 13:19 left. Kentucky did not lead again the rest of the half.
Herro guarded Joe early. The Cats switched to Hagans.
Late in the half, Joe twice made shots that put Arkansas ahead by 12 points.
Joe was no secret. He came into the game having made 93 three-pointers (which tied Kentuckian Chris Lofton for the fourth most made by a SEC freshman).
After his team won at Arkansas on Saturday, Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said of Joe, “The heart of our scouting report was trying to keep him from getting touches and keep him from getting shots.”
With the Hogs ahead 37-28, UK switched to a zone in the final 27 seconds. Arkansas beat it with a layup by Daniel Gafford to set the halftime score.
“The biggest key is getting off to a good start, and you have to make shots …,” Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said on Monday. “You have to take care of the basketball. Got to get to the free throw line as much as they do.”
Except for a 12-7 free-throw disparity, Arkansas met those goals.
Arkansas expanded its lead to 45-30 early in the second half. With the crowd cheering every sign of a rally, the Cats rallied. Six straight points narrowed the deficit to 45-36. The final two points were a fast-break dunk by Herro set up by only Arkansas’ second turnover.
Kentucky’s comeback got a boost when Gafford limped off the court with 15:20 left.
The Cats steadily closed the deficit. A left-handed floater by Johnson brought UK within 51-44 at the 12:43 mark.
Arkansas went more than six minutes without a point.
UK tied it at 51-51 on a post-up by Washington with 8:11 left. That marked the first time Kentucky had not trailed since 13:19 remained in the first half.
No. 4 Kentucky at No. 7 Tennessee
2 p.m. Saturday (CBS-27)