By Nate Allen
Special to the News-Times
FAYETTEVILLE - Feeding their big freshman enabled Arkansas’ seniors to enjoy their last supper at Walton Arena, defeating the SEC leading and nationally 14th-ranked Auburn Tigers 91-82 Tuesday on the Razorbacks’ Senior Night.
For even as among Arkansas’ seven seniors, junior college transfer guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon joined the Arkansas career 1,000 points club in just two seasons, while Barford scored 20 and Macon scored 21, freshman center Daniel Gafford was Arkansas’ mealticket.
The 6-11 El Dorado native abused Auburn’s smaller, injury-depleted forecourt, scoring 21 points, seven on dunks, grabbed 10 rebounds and most intimidating of all, blocked seven shots helping his alternating fellow big man, Trey Thompson, the 6-9 senior Forrest City High grad, senior forwards Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook, starting guards Anton Beard, a North Little Rock High alum, Macon, of Little Rock Parkview, and Barford and walk-on practice player JT Plummer, depart in winning style.
“We wanted the seniors to leave with a smile on their face even though they might be crying at the end of the night because it’s their last game in the palace,” Gafford said on postgame radio. “With the game, we did what we had to do.”
Did he know the seniors could get past the evening’s emotions to play well, which all did?
“Yeah, they were ready for it,” Gafford said. “I could tell when we were leaving the locker room that every one of the seniors was ready for it, especially Trey.”
The Tigers, minus injured shot-blocker Anfernee McLemore, obviously weren’t ready for Gafford, though they had limited him to eight points and four rebounds when they beat Arkansas 88-77 after roaring to a 47-30 first half on Jan. 6 in Auburn, Ala.
At Walton, they had no answer for him.
“I’m an option, a threat on the inside, and I had to take advantage,” Gafford said. “Because when I’m on, I don’t think anybody can guard me.”
Auburn sure couldn’t.
Especially with Gafford dunking on them easier than donuts into coffee.
“A long time ago, I was told by a great basketball player, a forward actually,” Gafford said.
“He said, ‘Have the mentality every time you go to the basket to dunk on somebody, because if you do that, they are going to get out the way of you sooner or later because they are going to be scared of you.'”
The Tigers had to be scared to shoot, too, with Gafford swatting shots away for guards like Barford, 10 rebounds, to join Gafford in a double-double, gobbling them up.
“And Daniel, he had seven blocked shots,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “So you can imagine, he altered a lot of shots. So that means somebody else has got to come up with those rebounds, and we had some other guys to come out there and come up with those balls.”
How much progress has Gafford made since the season’s outset?
“He's changing before our eyes,” Anderson said. “I think he's no longer a freshman anymore. I think his confidence is real, real high. I think he's worked extremely hard. He came up here this summer and just worked. He's a sponge. He listens. He's coachable.”
So he learned from getting schooled in some early SEC games like at Auburn back on Jan. 6.
“Once we got to conference, you could see the strength factor was really, really big,” Anderson said.
“People were doubling up on him. But now, understanding his role, and other guys understanding their roles, you notice now he's catching the ball with a little more space. He's doing a really good job, and I think he can play even better.”
Macon said Gafford never gave less than his best effort even when thwarted.
“He goes all out,” Macon said. “Every time he’s on the floor, he goes all out. Daniel stepped up big tonight. He’s a force to be reckoned with.
“I think he’s the best big man in the country. I haven’t seen anybody better than him when he comes to play."
The seniors and the rookie and those in between appear to have a NCAA Tournament bid in hand as the 21-9 overall, 10-7 in the third-place Razorbacks head into their SEC regular-season finale against the Missouri Tigers at 5 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2 in Columbia, Mo.