FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Daniel Gafford didn’t start Arkansas’ final home game of the season against Auburn on Tuesday night.
Once the Razorbacks’ starting lineup of all seniors made way, the remarkably athletic freshman all but finished the No. 14 Tigers in Arkansas’ 91-82 win.
Gafford had 21 points and 10 rebounds in the victory, which was the sixth in the last seven games for the surging Razorbacks (21-9, 10-7 Southeastern Conference). His performance included a 10-of-15 effort from the field and came in 27 minutes of action, during which Gafford matched his career high with seven blocks.
The 6-foot-11 forward also had seven dunks, raising his total for the season to 65 and helping Arkansas solidify its NCAA Tournament standing.
“(Gafford) is a force to be reckoned with,” Arkansas guard Daryl Macon said. “He’s the best big man in the country. I haven’t seen anyone better than him when he comes to play, the most athletic.”
Mustapha Heron scored 28 points and Jared Harper had 20 to lead the Tigers (24-6, 12-5), who could have clinched at least a share of the regular season SEC title with a win. Horace Spencer added 12 points in the loss for Auburn, which shot just 34.4 percent (22 of 64).
The defeat marked the first time Auburn has lost back-to-back games this season, and it was the school’s third in its last four games.
“I’ve got confidence we can pull this thing off, because we’ve done it all year long,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.
As good as Gafford was on Tuesday, he had plenty of help — particularly from Arkansas’ senior guard duo of Jaylen Barford and Macon
Barford and Macon each topped the 1,000-point mark in their second seasons with the Razorbacks, with Barford finishing with 20 points and Macon 16. The seniors are the sixth and seventh players in school history to score more than 1,000 points in only two seasons.
Barford also finished with a career-best 10 rebounds and Macon was 6 of 7 from the field, including 4 of 4 on 3-pointers, on Senior Night in Bud Walton Arena.
“I wouldn’t want them to come in here and win a conference championship,” Macon said. “I think we all had it in our minds that we were going to come out here and give it all for our last time.”
With Macon’s outside shooting leading the way, Arkansas finished 10 of 19 on 3-pointers — while Auburn was only 7 of 28 from behind the arc. Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson had a good idea afterward why they had so many quality looks. “They had no answer for (Gafford),” Anderson said. “Then, I thought that opened it up for our guys on the perimeter.”
Auburn: The Tigers were trying to match the school record for SEC road wins in a season against Arkansas, a team Auburn defeated 88-77 at home on Jan. 6. Auburn came into the game 5-3 on the road in conference play, the only school with a winning road mark in the league, but it only led briefly in the opening minutes on Tuesday and was unable to recover after Arkansas built a 19-point lead in the second half.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks entered the game 30th in the NCAA’s RPI ratings and likely well on their way to the NCAA Tournament following a road win at Alabama over the weekend. The win over the Tigers improved Arkansas to 15-2 at Bud Walton Arena this season and all but assures the school of reaching the tournament for a third time in four seasons, the Razorbacks best run since three straight appearances from 2006-08.
Auburn closes out the regular season by hosting South Carolina on Saturday.
The Razorbacks are at Missouri on Saturday.
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