COLUMBIA— Arkansas made all the right plays down the stretch, perhaps none bigger than Manuele Watkins’ running bank shot that rattled home in the final minute with the shot clock set to run out.
“He didn’t call bank, but it’s good,” smiled Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson.
The Razorbacks will take it.
Watkins’ wild shot with 29.3 seconds left killed off No. 21 South Carolina’s rally and led to Arkansas’ first road win over a ranked opponent in nearly three years, 83-76, on Wednesday night.
The Gamecocks (20-6, 10-3 Southeastern Conference) had cut a 10-point deficit to 77-76 before Watkins’ shot. His basket started a 6-0 run to the end for the Razorbacks (19-7, 8-5).
“Anything I can do to help my team win,” Watkins said. “I love it.”
Jaylen Barford matched his career best with 23 points and Dusty Hannahs scored 20, including nine straight during the second half, after South Carolina got the double-digit lead to 55-54.
“I’m an aggressive player and I just turned on the switch to get aggressive,” said Hannahs, who reached 20 points for the second time in three games.
Sindarius Thornwell had another monster game for South Carolina with 27 points. But like his 44-point, 21-rebound effort last week in a four-overtime home loss to Alabama, it was not enough. The Gamecocks dropped a game behind SEC leaders No. 13 Kentucky and No. 15 Florida in the race for a league title.
Thornwell said luck was on Watkins’ side during the final stretch. “You couldn’t ask for better defense” from Rakym Felder, Thornwell said.
Kingsley had 16 points and Daryl Macon added 13 for Arkansas, which had not beaten a Top 25 opponent on the road since topping Kentucky, then 17th, on Feb. 27, 2014.
Barford matched his career best set against Missouri two weeks ago.
The Razorbacks shook off a slow start with several first-half runs against one of the country’s best defenses. After trailing by 14, Arkansas used a 25-2 run to move in front. And when South Carolina rallied to tie the game at 30-all, the Razorbacks finished the half with 9-2 spurt.
The Gamecocks had been a team on a roll with a 9-1 start to SEC play. But losses to Alabama and Arkansas in just the past eight days have South Carolina straddling a perilous line in the NCAA Tournament.
The team won 24 games including 11 in the SEC and yet was left out of last year’s event. Coach Frank Martin has talked to his team about not leaving things to chance this season, but it looks like the Gamecocks will need a late-season rally to lock up a spot.
Count Arkansas on the rise with the Gamecocks’ hopes eroding. The Razorbacks are a victory away from their third 20-win season in the past four years as they look to jump off the bubble and into the 68-team field.
South Carolina seemed to have spot locked up, but two disheartening home losses — the Gamecocks had not lost two games in a row at the Colonial Life Arena since January 2015 — have opened the door for doubters.
SOUTH CAROLINA DEFENSE?
The Gamecocks came into the game leading the SEC in scoring defense, field goal percentage defense and 3-point field goal defense. However, Arkansas went for 83 points, 20 more than South Carolina was allowing, and finished 53.6 percent from the field and 50 percent from behind the arc.
“We’re not doing our job and it shows,” Thornwell said.
Arkansas returns home to play Mississippi on Saturday.
South Carolina travels to Vanderbilt on Saturday night.