ATLANTA, Ga. – Rotnei Clarke scored 18 points to lead the University of Arkansas men’s basketball team against the Tennessee Volunteers on Thursday night, but despite a furious effort in the second half, the Razorbacks’ run at the SEC Tournament ended in the first round with a 74-68 loss at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga.
Arkansas (18-13) drops to 2-3 against the Volunteers at the SEC Tournament all-time while Tennessee (19-13) avenges its loss to the Razorbacks from earlier this season.
The Razorbacks struggled from the floor for most of the night but did manage a string of eight-straight made baskets mid way through the second half. Part of that stretch was the start of a 17-2 Arkansas run over 6:10 which erased a 16-point Tennessee lead going into the closing moments.
Tennessee’s Brian Williams scored in the paint with 50.3 seconds left on the clock to give the Vols a 70-68 edge and the Volunteers followed up with a steal and two free throws to go up by four with 33.8 on the clock. Forced to foul, Tennessee was able to open the lead to the final winning margin of six points.
"I was very, very proud of those guys for the run they put together," Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey said. "Actually had a chance there on a couple possessions to take the lead, but we weren’t able to do that. Tennessee had some good defense and was able to outplay us there in the last minute or so to get the victory."
Clarke was held in check throughout the first half as the junior sharpshooter was unable to make a field goal, but did score five points from the free throw line. He responded in the second half with 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting which included three three-point baskets. Clarke’s three-pointers give him 91 for the season and solidify his place as No. 2 on Arkansas’ all-time career three-point chart with 274.
Along with Clarke’s scoring, the Razorbacks got a very good game from senior Delvon Johnson who nearly had a double-double with 15 points and eight rebounds. In foul trouble for a good portion of the first half, Johnson got hot in the second 20 minutes and scored nine points. Johnson was also credited with one blocked shots giving him 91 for the season and 107 for his two-year Arkansas career. His single season total moves him into a tie for third with Steven Hill on Arkansas’ all-time list and his career total moves him into a tie for seventh all-time with Mike Washington.
Overall it was a tale of two halves for the Razorbacks who shot just 28 percent in the opening 20 minutes, but came back to shoot 67 percent in the second half. From beyond the three-point line, Arkansas was just 15 percent to start the game, but 50 percent down the stretch which allowed for their comeback effort.
"The Hogs showed a lot of heart and got back into it," SEC Network studio analyst Barry Booker said shortly after the final horn had sounded.
Tennessee was led by freshman phenom Tobias Harris who scored 20 points in just 29 minutes of action and was efficient in doing so, shooting 7-of-13 from the floor and 5-of-5 from the free throw line. He was joined by Melvin Goins in double figures with 12 points while senior center Brian Williams came off the bench to score nine points and grab eight rebounds.
The Razorbacks started off well from the floor as they took an early five-point lead, but a scoring drought several minutes in allowed Tennessee to close the gap and eventually take its first lead of the contest at the 17:08 mark. Foul trouble on Arkansas’ big men gave the Volunteers an opening on the inside which they exploited by giving the ball to Harris who tallied 16 first half points.
Arkansas’ poor shooting over the opening 20 minutes did not hurt early as it was able to keep the game close until the final moments, but Tennessee was able to open up a double digit lead and go into the break ahead, 37-25.
The Razorbacks must now wait to learn if they will play in the post season as those announcements are set for Sunday evening.