KNOXVILLE, TENN. - The University of Arkansas walked into Thompson Boling Arena Saturday afternoon and did what no one has done in the past 15 games.
Because of that, the Razorbacks seem all but certain to be headed to a place they haven't been in the past five seasons - the NCAA Tournament.
Sophomore Darian Townes had 15 points and senior Jonathon Modica 14 points and 5 assists to lead five players in double figures as Arkansas rallied from 14 points down with just under 9 minutes to go to down No. 10 Tennessee 73-69 before 22,543 fans at Thompson Boling Arena.
"We were not going to walk out of this arena with a loss," said Townes, who was 7-of-9 from the field and also had six rebounds. "No how, no way. So we just settled down, went to work and took care of our business. Everybody put everything they had in, we played hard, we played together and we never, ever gave up."
It happened because the Razorbacks (19-8, 8-6) absolutely pounded the Volunteers (20-5, 11-3) into submission on the boards 45-24 - with six guys having at least five rebounds - and left a lasting impression of their togetherness as a team.
The victory was certainly a signature one for Arkansas, who was 3-27 in the last four years in road games and was 1-5 this season coming into Saturday with the losses coming by a combined 11 points.
"It was an incredible win for us," Arkansas head coach Stan Heath said. "We have not exactly been killing people on the road, so winning against the best team in he league - and a top 10 team - is really a credit to our team. I am really proud of the way the kids never quit and never stopped fighting. They stayed together and a lot of guys made some big, big plays for us."
The Razorbacks, who trailed 63-49 with 8:48 left in the game, scored the game's next 15 points to take the lead and had put a 21-3 run on the Volunteers late - sealing the deal when Modica and Eric Ferguson combine to hit three free throws in the final 30 seconds.
"I was not going to let my team lose this one," Modica said. "We have come together as a team, worked too hard and put in too much to let another one slip away. We did it for Coach Heath, we did it for ourselves, we did it for our fans that have stuck we us. Lots of people counted us out, but no one in our locker room ever has."
Ferguson added had 12 points and five assists, Charles Thomas 11 points and 6 rebounds, Vincent Hunter an inspired 10 points and 7 rebounds and Ronnie Brewer 9 points and 9 assists in the win.
The win was the third in a row - and second over a top 10 foe in eight days for the Razorbacks, who have now run a gauntlet of the No. 7 Florida, Alabama and the Volunteers and pumped up their resume for a trip to the Big Dance for the first time since 2001.
The Razorbacks had 24 assists and just 10 turnovers on Saturday, just a few weeks after having 5 assists total in a loss at Ole Miss that set off this three-game win streak.
"We have battled all season long and have had a lot of tough games that didn't go our way," Heath said. "These last three have fortunately gone in our favor. If you were looking at the schedule and said we were going to win all three, I am not sure many people would have believed that. It shows you that we have always been right there. I would not have thought we would win all three, but I would not bet against us right now."
Tennessee, who had not lost a game at home this season and had won the final three of the previous season, found itself stunned on its homecourt just days after doing the same thing to Florida on the Gators' court.
"In the second half, Arkansas clearly was fresher," Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl said. "We did not have the energy to speed things up. Their size and athleticism made a difference. We struggled with defense and just got dominated on the boards. It is hard to win when the numbers come out this way."
While C.J. Watson had a team-high 17 points, backcourt mate Chris Lofton - the league's top shooter and second-leading scorer behind Brewer - was limited to just 12 points on 3-of-7 shooting from the field in large part due to the work of Ferguson.
"Eric just did a phenomenal job on Lofton," Heath said. "He came to me and was really down after (Alabama's Ronald) Steele went off (for 29 points) and wanted to take on Lofton and said he would not let us down if he did."
Still the Vols look to be putting the game away when - after taking a six-point lead into the half - surged ahead 63-49 on Watson's deep 3-point with 8:48 left in the game.
"In that huddle at that time, we knew we had come back from bigger deficits and knew we could get this done," Brewer said. "Coach Heath did a great job motivating us and we went out there and laid it on the line for him, ourselves and everybody that supports us."
Indeed the Razorbacks scored the next 15 points - a run started by Hunter's lay-up and capped by Ferguson's 3-pointer that rallied Arkansas ahead 64-63 at the 4:13 mark.
"We strapped it up defensively and we finally settled down to a point where if we did not have a fastbreak, we ran our offense," Heath said. "When we were taking quick shots, hurried shots, it allowed them to score in transition. We played smarter and we played tougher, and at the end of the game, I think we had more in our tank."
Tennessee regained the lead on a Lofton 3-pointer 20 seconds later, but Thomas scored inside and so did Townes to give the Razorbacksa 68-66 lead with 2:56 left in the game.
It stayed that way until Ferguson got loose in the lane and and scored with 1:19 left to get Arkansas ahead 70-66.
Tennessee's JaJuan Smith - who had 10 of his 11 points in the opening half - hit a free throw with 1:03 left and then Dane Bradshaw got both of his to cut the Razorbacks' lead to 70-69 with 32.9 remaining.
Modica then calmly stepped to the line and netted both of his freebies with 26.8 showing to give Arkansas the 72-69 lead.
"I was going to make them foul me," Modica said. "I wanted to take the free throws and I do that I was going to make them. There was no doubt in my mind about that."
After a wild shot by Smith that hit nothing, Ferguson then hit the backend of a two-shot opportunity with 10.8 remaining to cap the day's scoring.
"I just can't say enough about our team," Ferguson said. "Everybody was down on us, but we were never down on each other. We knew we had this in us and now we have showed everyone. We are so together right now."
In the opening half, Tennessee got out to a 15-10 lead, but Arkansas responded by scoring 16 of the game's next 23 points.
That run was fueled by some impressive board work by Hunter, started with a Modica lay-up and was capped by another Modica lay-up and Hill's tip-in that pushed the Razorbacks ahead 26-22.
"I can't say enough about guys like Vincent Hunter and the effort he brought and how he throwed his body around in there and got us some second shots," Heath said. "He played just great today.
Arkansas had the ball and a chance to go up anywhere from seven to nine points, but Brewer was called for a charge.
At that point, the Razorbacks had a 16-7 rebounding advantage with Hunter grabbing 5 of those.
The Vols answered with a run of their own, scoring seven unanswered points and taking a 29-26 lead Smith's 3-point bomb with 5:31 left in the opening half.
Arkansas would rally three times after that to take the lead, the final time on Brewer's contested dunk that put the Razorbacks ahead 34-33 with 2:23 remaining before intermission.
But Townes was called for a technical on the play, Watson hit the two technical free throws to give the Vols a lead and start a 7-0 run that surged them ahead 40-34 on Stanley Asumnu's old-fasioned three-point play with 90 seconds left in the half.
Hill's lay-up cut it to four, but Asumnu scored again to send Tenn essee to the half with a 42-36 lead.
The Volunteers scored nine of the second half's first 11 points, pushing the lead to 49-38 on Watson's basket with 15:24 left in the game.
The Orange faifthful thought they had it wrapped up at that point and especially when that lead jumped to 14.
"We were playing for a championship and they were playing to get in the tournament," Pearl said. "They just wanted it more than we did. No one plays harder than we do. No one. But they really, really got after it and they are going to make a lot of noise and beat some people in the NCAA Tournament with that team."
Arkansas will finish up its regular season by hosting Mississippi State on Wednesday night at 7 :05 p.m. inside Bud Walton Arena and then traveling to Georgia for a Sunday afternoon game at 1 p.m.
Both games will be televised live by Jefferson-Pilot Sports.
"We can't stop here," Heath said. "It feels great, but we still have work left to do."
Arkansas 73, Tennessee 69
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