After spirited start against Arkansas, it’s another opportunity lost for Kentucky

Silas Walker/

The stakes were high in Rupp Arena on Tuesday night, and the intensity matched the circumstances. For the first 20 minutes, at least.

In a basketball game between two teams firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble, Arkansas put Kentucky away with a dominant second half to score a 88-73 road victory over the Wildcats.

Freshman guard Cason Wallace led UK with 24 points, five assists, two blocks and three steals. Fellow freshman Chris Livingston scored 13 points, and Antonio Reeves and Jacob Toppin each chipped in with 11 points.

UK star Oscar Tshiebwe struggled again, tallying seven points and seven rebounds. He scored just four points and shot 2-for-14 from the field Saturday against Florida (though he did have 15 rebounds in that game).

Meanwhile, the Razorbacks shot 62.7 percent from the field for the game and 72.0 percent in the second half. Arkansas was 17-for-22 on two-point shots after halftime, and the Hogs largely controlled the game after the two teams came out of the locker room for the second 20 minutes.

Rupp Arena wasn’t as full Tuesday night as it was for the two previous games — a win over Florida and a loss to Kansas the past two Saturday nights — but it hasn’t been as loud all season as it was at points of this matchup.

One especially intense stretch toward the end of the first half featured a flurry of offense, quick back-and-forth transition play, and physicality on both ends of the court, a hectic period amid a deafening din in the building. That run ended when John Calipari was whistled for a technical foul for protesting a no-call — a run-in with lead referee Terry Oglesby that had been brewing since the opening minutes of the game.

Aside from one 62-second stretch that saw Arkansas briefly take a six-point lead, the entire first half was a one-possession game.

Calipari approached Ogelsby as soon as the referees came back onto the court to start the second half, and the UK coach was quite animated before assistant Bruiser Flint stepped in to break up the conversation.

A buzzer-beating jumper from Daimion Collins sent Kentucky to the halftime locker room down one point, but Arkansas quickly extended its advantage out of the break. The Hogs scored the first six points of the second half — the last four on back-to-back steals-and-dunks by star freshman Anthony Black — and Calipari called a timeout less than 90 seconds into the half, his team down 47-40.

UK chipped away at the lead and kept things close out of that timeout, but another offensive flurry gave the Razorbacks the first double-digit lead of the game with 8:00 remaining. When the Hogs’ advantage reached 16 points with a little more than four minutes to go, a large number of UK fans headed for the exits.

The Cats fell to 16-8 and 7-4 in the Southeastern Conference. They have now lost three games in Rupp Arena in the past four weeks.

Kentucky was playing without point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who injured an ankle during practice earlier in the week and was set to be a game-time decision against the Razorbacks (17-7, 6-5 SEC). Wheeler did not join the UK team for pregame warmups and was officially ruled out a few minutes before tipoff.

Wallace, the Cats’ starting point guard, played all but 42 seconds of the game.

At the start of the day, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had Kentucky and Arkansas occupying the final two spots on his “last four byes” list for the NCAA Tournament, meaning UK was the sixth team on the right side of the bubble and the Hogs were fifth. The four teams rated below them would be playing one of the “First Four” games in Dayton at the beginning of the first week of the NCAA Tournament, and a win would be needed there just to make the round of 64.

That’s how close to the cut line both teams were coming into this game, which was an important matchup for each program. It qualified as a “Quad 1” game for both teams, and UK was 1-6 in such games before Tuesday night, with the Hogs holding a 1-5 record against Quad 1 opposition when they stepped onto the Rupp Arena court.

The two teams will meet again March 4 in Fayetteville in the regular-season finale.

Kentucky basketball family continues to lift up Daimion Collins. ‘He should be playing.’

Kentucky is still on the bubble. A run of big opportunities for the Cats begins now.

Dontaie Allen is on fire for Western Kentucky. ‘He’s got a lot of confidence right now.’

From recruit to Rupp’s rafters, more stories and stats on UK basketball great Mike Pratt

Five things you need to know from Kentucky’s dispiriting 88-73 loss to Arkansas

Box score from Kentucky basketball’s 88-73 loss to Arkansas

First Scouting Report: Can UK go on the road and earn a season sweep of Georgia?

Committee of 101 suspends usher who flipped off Florida fans at Kentucky basketball game

Sahvir Wheeler out for Kentucky in SEC game against Arkansas at Rupp Arena