KNOXVILLE, TENN. - In his four-year career at the University of Arkansas, Jonathon Modica has certainly seen his ups and downs and a number of close losses - especially on the road.
But when he walked out of Thompson Boling Arena on Saturday afternoon, he and his teammates did so with a huge smile on their faces.
Modica had 14 points and 5 assists - and two big free throws with less than 30 seconds left - as his Razorbacks rallied from 14 down in the second half to topple No. 10 Tennessee 73-69 before 22,543 fans.
"I've been through a lot of horrible times in my career, but now toward the end of my senior year it is starting to pay off," Modica said. "This is such a big win for us."
That makes it three in a row for the Razorbacks (19-8, 8-6), who have whipped then No. 7 Florida, Alabama and now the Volunteers in their last three games after a potentially devastating loss at Ole Miss.
"These have been the biggest three games of my career here and the best moments of my career here," Modica said. "I think me and my teammates are very deserving of this."
That sentiment was echoed by sophomore power forward Darian Townes, who had 15 points and 6 rebounds in the game and was big late with 9 points in the last 7:23 of the game as the Razorbacks rallied from a 63-49 deficit to shock the Vols.
"I think the keys to this game were defense, heart and rebounding," Townes said and indeed the Razorbacks were dominant to the tune of 45-24 on the boards.
Townes said he believes his entire team checked itself after the 73-70 loss to Ole Miss back on Feb. 15, a loss to a team that had not won in a month and hasn't won since.
"I believe that everybody went home and looked themselves in the mirror," Townes said. "I know I did. I know a lot of people said we weren't going to get it done with these three tough teams, but we showed a lot of people how tough a team we are. We showed a lot of heart."
Junior Ronnie Brewer, who had 9 points and a game-high 9 assists, said his team banded together behind Razorback head coach Stan Heath after that Ole Miss loss.
"We know we got outworked against Ole Miss," Brewer said. "You might not be able to control winning the game or losing the game, but you can sure control how hard you play day in and day out A lot of people lost faith in us after that game, but we stayed together as a team and showed a lot of character. We have continued to play hard every game and we have been behind Coach Heath and fighting for them."
The Razorbacks had suffered close losses loss against LSU, at Alabama, at Kentucky and at LSU as well as Ole Miss by not closing out games.
But that is just what they have done while finishing off Florida, Alabama and now Tennessee (20-5, 11-3).
"As players we have been staying together and coming together as one," senior guard Eric Ferguson said. "We had meetings and we knew what we wanted to do. We were going to play hard and play through our mistakes. That's the difference - we aren't worrying about our mistakes and we just getting on to the next play. At the beginning of the season, we all got down on ourselves.
"I don't think we should have put ourselves in this situation," Ferguson continued, " but as the season has gone on, we have learned from our mistakes and put it all together."
Modica helped close out Saturday's win by making sure he got fouled and would be taking two free throws with 26.8 seconds - two that he swished for a 72-69 advantage.
"I refuse to let my team down in crucial moments like that," Modica said. "They look at me as a senior for leadership and my offensive ability so I just tried to make that happen."
Obviously there was some who wondered if Arkansas had anything left when they got down by 14 points, but Modica said his teammates knew they could come back.
"We were just trying to make sure we chipped away, chipped away," Modica said. "(Arkansas assistant) Coach Sorensen said let's get it down to five by the next timeout and that was with like seven minutes left. That's actually what we did. Actually we got it down to four and we just kept on going."
He admitted to not being thrilled with some of the calls earlier in the game.
"It was frustrating because we didn't think we were getting a lot of calls, but we fought our way back into the game," Modica said. "We played great defense toward the end of the ballgame and made some very key plays at the end on the offensive end."
Brewer said indeed his team did believe they would somehow pull it out in the end just as the Razorbacks had done in the two previous games.
"I think that everybody outside of our locker room didn't give us a chance," Brewer said. "But we just kept on fighting and staying together and we've had the opportunities to win the games. They put their shoes on just like we do. Once the ball got thrown up, we just had to play our style and keep on fighting for 40 minutes."
A big part of victory was Ferguson's defense on Tennessee star Chris Lofton and Lofton having to chase around Modica according to Vols head coach Bruce Pearl.
"Eric Ferguson just played great defense and was just in his pocket the whole day and following him around," Modica said. "He tried to make sure he didn't get any open looks and it worked for us today."
The three wins have most of the so-called experts locking Arkansas into its first berth in the Big Dance since 2001.
"I think we are definitely an NCAA Tournament team, but hopefully we can continue to just gain more respect," Modica said.
Townes thinks so also, but first wants to give Mississippi State a little payback for an earlier season loss when the two teams match up in Bud Walton Arena on Wednesday night in a 7:05 p.m. game.
"I think we are, but we have still got a little payback from where MississippI State got us the first time," Townes said. "We have got to keep our head tight and be ready for that game on Wednesday night."
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