ST. LOUIS (AP) — Believe it or not, Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament hopes appeared all but lost a little more than a month ago.
The way the Razorbacks have played since, they’re arguably the hottest team in the Southeastern Conference and looking to do far more than just reach the NCAAs for a third time in the last four seasons.
Led by Jaylen Barford’s 27 points and 10 rebounds, Arkansas advanced to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament with an 80-72 win over No. 23 Florida on Friday night. The win is the eighth in the last 10 games for the sixth-seeded Razorbacks (23-10), a winning stretch matched in the SEC only by No. 13 Tennessee — who Arkansas will face on Saturday.
“I think we’re slowly picking up steam and we’re getting better,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “… This team is believing in each other.”
In addition to how often Arkansas has won since falling to 15-8 after back-to-back road losses to Texas A&M and LSU, it’s who the Razorbacks have defeated that’s so impressive. The win over the third-seeded Gators (20-12) was the school’s third over a ranked opponent in the last month, improving Arkansas to 5-1 against ranked opponents this season.
It also ended an eight-game losing streak to Florida team that had won three games in a row coming into the tournament.
Barford, the third-leading scorer in the SEC, finished one off his career high in points in the win and he matched his best with the double-digit rebounds. He did so a night after hitting a key late 3-pointer in the Razorbacks opening win over South Carolina , finishing 9 of 17 from the field and showing off his usual array of physical finishes around the rim for all of the SEC to see.
Arkansas freshman Daniel Gafford added 16 points and also matched his career-best with 12 rebounds, keying an effort that saw the Razorbacks outrebound the Gators 43-28. Gafford also put the exclamation point on the victory with a windmill dunk on the break in the closing minute that sent the vocal Arkansas crowd into a frenzy in the Scottrade Center.
“I think our confidence is great right now as a team,” Barford said. “We came together, and I think everybody knows what’s at task right now. It’s game time, and everybody’s ready to play.”
Keith Stone led Florida with 22 points and finished 8 of 10 from the field. Chris Chiozza added 16 points and KeVaughn Allen 11 for the Gators, who hit six of their first 10 3-pointers before hitting only seven of their next 22 to finish 13 of 32 overall from behind the arc.
Barford’s career high of 28 points came earlier this season in a loss at Florida, giving the first-team All-SEC guard a total of 55 points in two games against the Gators this season. “(Barford) scored on whoever was guarding him,” Florida coach Mike White said. “He scored off ball screens, he scored off step-back jumpers against our bigs. Two games this year he dominated us.”
Arkansas: The last time the Razorbacks won a game against Florida was on Feb. 5, 2013, in Fayetteville. Since then, they had lost the eight straight games to add to a stretch of 13 losses in 14 games to the Gators. Arkansas has now won 40 straight games when leading at halftime, and it’s well on its way to a third NCAA Tournament appearance in the last four seasons.
Florida: Allen is from Arkansas and played in at North Little Rock High School with Arkansas guard Anton beard. The senior scored a season-high 28 points in Florida’s 88-73 win over the Razorbacks on Jan. 17, but he was held to a 4-of-11 shooting effort on Friday. The loss was the first of Allen’s career against his home state, coming after he had been a part of six straight victories over the Razorbacks.
Florida waits for its NCAA Tournament destination.
Arkansas faces second-seeded Tennessee on Saturday.