NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Arkansas forward Marshawn Powell shook his head in disappointment in the hallway of Bridgestone Arena on Thursday night.
The junior has seen too many disappointing performances in the Southeastern Conference Tournament during his career with the Razorbacks. He really thought this time was different. He really believed a roster with more depth and talent in Mike Anderson’s second season would finally break through.
So he was frustrated after a familiar result: Arkansas’ 75-72 loss to Vanderbilt.
“We’re in a rough patch,” Powell said. “The last couple teams I played on, we didn’t really have the head like we have on this team with Coach A. It was kind of difficult to go through that. But we’ll get there. We’re not going to give up. We’ll get there.”
Success in the SEC Tournament will have to wait until next year, though.
Arkansas followed what has been its regular road routine Thursday, falling into a big hole with a lackluster performance in the first half. The Razorbacks (19-13) dug in during the final minutes to trim the deficit to 70-68, but an opportunity to tie the game slipped through their fingers and resulted in another loss.
It was Arkansas’ sixth straight at the SEC Tournament, continuing a winless streak that stretches back to the 2008 championship game against Georgia.
It also dropped the Razorbacks to 1-12 outside the state this season and put their postseason hopes on thin ice. Arkansas will not be part of the NCAA Tournament field when it is announced Sunday, but hopes the National Invitation Tournament will call and become its first postseason appearance under Anderson.
Anderson and his players said after Thursday’s loss they want to keep playing, but there are no guarantees it will be an option after an early exit in Nashville.
“It’s going to be a long couple of days,” Arkansas forward Michael Qualls said. “Especially with this loss knowing that we could’ve done something differently.”
Arkansas will look back on its struggles in the first half as the main culprit in another early exit from the SEC Tournament.
The Razorbacks had trouble guarding the Commodores (15-16) out of the locker room, watching Vanderbilt guards drive to the basket for easy layups on several possessions. On others, open shooters knocked down 3-point shots.
Vanderbilt — which entered the game ranked second in the SEC in 3-point field goals — went 6-for-13 from long range in the first half. It helped the Commodores build as much as a 14-point lead and take a 38-30 edge into the locker room.
“The energy wasn’t there. The effort wasn’t there,” Anderson said. “We weren’t in sync with one another. Of course, that’s my fault. I thought I had these guys prepared for that. This is the third time playing Vandy. We know what they do.”
Arkansas began to clamp down in the second half and it helped the Hogs quickly close to four points in the early minutes. But Vanderbilt settled down and regained control, relying on strong shooting to lead by as much as 59-43 with 10:42 left.
Vanderbilt maintained a double digit lead until the four-minute mark, when Arkansas made its final push. The Razorbacks — who struggled to force turnovers most of the game — finally found some success late. Steals led to easy buckets, free throws and an 11-3 run by Arkansas to make it 70-68.
Qualls recorded another steal, too, at midcourt with less than a minute left. His hurried pass down the floor to Powell led the junior under the basket. Powell tried to flip the ball at the rim, but it wasn’t close and Vanderbilt grabbed the rebound.
“Whoever was with me tried to steal the ball back and hit me in the side of my face and I bobbled the ball,” Qualls said. “When I regained it, I kind of threw it. It was kind of a late pass. … With his momentum going forward, he had nowhere to go.
“I should’ve just dribbled it back out. That mistake was on me.”
It was the closest Arkansas could get to the Commodores. Kedren Johnson made two free throws on Vanderbilt’s next possession to open up a four-point lead with 19 seconds left. Arkansas guard BJ Young then missed two with 13 seconds left.
Vanderbilt finally wrapped up the win after two more free throws by Johnson with five seconds left. He scored 13 points and was one of four Commodores in double figures Thursday. Rod Odom equaled his career-high with 20 points, while Kyle Fuller came off the bench to add 19 points.
The duo helped Vanderbilt go 12-for-28 (42.9 percent) behind the 3-point line.
“Earlier in the season we would have lost this game,” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team improved to 7-3 in the past 10 games. “The foul shots, the turnovers would have freaked us out. We would have lost. And we maintained our composure and kept getting stops and we made enough free throws to win.”
Young and Powell started slow for Arkansas, but finished with 16 and 13 points, respectively. Qualls added 10 off the bench as the Razorbacks shot 43.6 percent.
The problems came from long range (4-for-16) and at the free-throw line (20-for-34). Powell struggled the most at the stripe (7-for-15) and took the blame for the misses saying: “Terrible for me. Terrible. … Just put it on me.”
It was one reason he and the Razorbacks are going home early once again.
“I thought our guys had the right mindset coming in,” Anderson said. “So it’s disappointing for me from that standpoint. It gives me the mindset that, you know what, we’re not going to let it happen again. But there’s nothing you can do. Vandy played better than we did (Thursday). We’ll learn from it. We’ll learn from it.
“Hopefully it’s going to make us better as we continue to hopefully play.”