ATLANTA, GA — For all the talk about the superior basketball in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division, it’s the folks in the SEC West that are having difficulty containing the giggles right now. The third seed (Tennessee) from the East went down Thursday night. Seeds two (Vanderbilt) and four (Kentucky) followed suit Friday afternoon.
Vanderbilt (20-11) followed up Kentucky’s overtime loss to Mississippi State with a one-and-done 72-21 loss to Arkansas in the second game of the Friday afternoon session. Both Mississippi State (18-12) and Arkansas (20-12) came into the tournament needing to enhance their resumes to have a shot at the NCAA Tournament and both have so far done what’s required. Mississippi State probably needs one more win to get in while Arkansas may have elbowed its way in by getting to the 20-win plateau. Given that the SEC produced the NCAA champion (Florida) and a Final Four participant (LSU) last year, the selection committee might be inclined to add a fifth team from the league to the four (Florida, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Kentucky) that are already mortal locks to do some March Madness dancing.
With Arkansas facing Mississippi State in Saturday’s 1 p.m. semifinal, the winner could be on the invite list come Sunday’s selection show. Arkansas Coach Stan Heath knows the only surefire way his team gets in the NCAA Tournament is to keep on winning.
“We definitely don’t want to leave anything to chance and winning is the only way that guarantees you on the spot,” said Heath after Friday’s win. “We won some good games against some quality opponents. Sometimes when you just look at teams and you say to yourself, does that look like a team that should be in there? I would think without a doubt that we would be one of those teams if you watched us over the last week, and even if you watched us early in the year … if you watched us at different times because we are capable of beating people. But the thing is right now not to be premature and jump ahead. We have to win. We have to continue to win because you never know. There are probably other teams that have those same sort of cases.”
Arkansas has a chance to make it to the big dance because Gary Ervin came through when the Razorbacks needed him most. Ervin, who had scored only four points in the first 39 minutes of the game, drove the lane and found an opening between 6-9 Ross Neltner and 6-7 Derrick Byars for a layup with 11 seconds left. That gave Arkansas a 72-71 lead but Vandy still had a chance to put the game away.
The Commodores moved quickly across midcourt and found Shan Foster open on the right side for a three-point jumper. Instead of the nylon he was looking for, his shot only found iron. Charles Thomas snagged the rebound for Arkansas and pandemonium broke loose on the Arkansas side of the floor.
The Ervin layup was set up during a timeout in which Heath set up a play that called for him to look first to the low blocks for one of his big men, and if that didn’t work, to Sonny Weems on the wing. The third option called for Ervin to drive the lane and see if he could dish off or else draw a foul. When options one and two were covered, he drove, saw the crease between the two Vandy defenders and put the ball in for the game-winner.
“I just came out of the huddle and listened to what my head coach head to say, what the coaching staff told us … to try to get the ball down low and get an easy basket or try to get to the free throw line,” said Ervin. “Things didn’t go our way. We couldn’t get the ball down low and then I tried to look for Sonny [Weems] and things didn’t go as planned. I just tried to penetrate and see if they’ll double. If not get to the basket and try to finish.”
Arkansas had chances to take control of the game in the first half, but Vandy kept hanging around. In the second half, Vandy had a 60-52 lead with 6:43 remaining in the game on a three-pointer by Jermaine Beale but Arkansas regrouped and drew even at 65-65 on a layup by Patrick Beverly with 3:37 left.
Beverly led Arkansas with 18 points while Weems had 17 that included 3-6 from the three-point stripe. Arkansas shot 25-54 from the field and won the rebounding battle 37-22. Weems and Thomas led Arkansas with nine rebounds each.
Vandy was led by SEC Player Derrick Byars with 15 points.