By Nate Allen
Special to News-Times
FAYETTEVILLE - Six Arkansas scholarship seniors and a walk-on senior suit up in their final career Walton Arena game tonight for a Razorbacks team desperate for them to bow out victoriously against an Auburn Tigers team desperate to win the SEC Championship.
At 8 p.m. on SEC Network TV, Coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks, 20-9 overall, 9-7 in the SEC on Senior Night for starting guards Anton Beard, Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon, and starting forward Dustin Thomas and reserve big men Trey Thompson and Arlando Cook and walk-on JT Plummer, meet Coach Bruce Pearl’s Tigers, 24-5, and at 12-4, one game ahead of second-place Tennessee, 11-5, with two games to play in the SEC regular season ending Saturday before starting all over again with next week’s SEC Tournament in St. Louis.
Also, the Hogs feel they have a score to settle since Auburn jumped them for a 47-30 first half on Jan. 6 in Auburn, Ala. and withstood Arkansas briefly cutting the margin to single digits before prevailing 88-77
Pearl’s Tigers, denied clinching at least a share of the title in last Saturday night’s 72-66 loss at Florida, should come in emotionally charged against a Razorbacks team coming into its Senior off a big 76-73 victory at Alabama and playing to improve its SEC Tournament seeding and insure its NCAA Tournament berth which Auburn already has on both counts though the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament seeding could go up or down from these final games.
“I think both teams will be motivated,” Anderson said. “We're going to be motivated. We want to protect the home court, It's big game. And I'm sure for them it's a big game as well. They're in position to win a championship. It's a team we played earlier in the year and they won on their home court. So we want to make sure we take care of business on our court.”
Anderson has a deep feeling for this class which includes his two star guards, second-year junior college transfer scoring leaders Barford and Macon both closing in on scoring 1,000 career points (983 for Barford and 986 for Macon), second-year JC transfer forward Cook, second-year University of Colorado transfer forward Thomas, and his two-year seniors, Beard of North Little Rock and Thompson of Madison via Forrest City High.
Beard, a starter on the Bobby Portis led 27-9 team in 2014-2015, and Thompson, especially paid their dues weathering the turnover of a team fallen to 16-16 their sophomore year then rebounding to 26-10 last year and riding some ups and downs this season.
“I’m sure it’s going to be emotional, a special night for them,” Anderson said. “Especially when you are talking about Trey and Anton Beard, the guys were babies when they came here. And they’ve been very instrumental I think in the success that has taken place. They’ve had some ups and downs along the way but they have had the staying power.”
All are on course to get their degree, Anderson said with Thompson already graduated in December.
Of Barford and Macon and their approaching 1,000 points, Anderson said, “They certainly have impacted our program. They're known not only around the state, but around the country by what they bring. That's a tribute to those guys coming in and fitting in with this group here. “
Macon, growing up rooting for the Hogs and a graduate of Little Rock Parkview, said it’s easy fitting in backed by “the best fans in the world.”
Barford said they owe one to those fans on their way out.
“This game is pretty personal because they beat us at their home place,” Barford said. “We know Bud Walton is going to be rocking tomorrow, so we have to come with a show, come with our hard hats and just be ready to play against those guys.”
Guaranteed Auburn will be ready. The Tigers projected to be 4-14 in the SEC by preseason media and recently losing key forward Anfernee McLemore to a season-ending injury, have been ready for everybody, especially when they pounced upon the Hogs by hitting 11 of 20 3-pointers and forcing 10 first-half turnovers building that 47-30 lead at intermission.
Mustafa Heron’s 17 points, including 3 of 4 treys, led a balanced Auburn attack that included guards Bryce Brown, 3 of 6 treys, Jared Harper, eight assists, and forward Desean Murray, only 6-3 but with eight rebounds, scoring 13, 14, and 15 points while off the bench forward Chuma Okeke scored 10 points with six boards.
Horace Spencer, a 6-8 forward now starting, wasn’t a major factor off the bench against Arkansas back on Jan. 6 but has been the glue that fixed the hole left by McLemore’s injury, Anderson said.
Anderson said the Razorbacks tried to outscore rather than play blue collar defense at Auburn in January and paid the price.
Arkansas’ seniors ruefully know that to be true.
“They are a Top Ten team in the country,” Thompson said. “So we’ve got to play defense for 40 minutes and whether we’re up or down just stay with each other and find a way to win.”