Senior Night

FAYETTEVILLE -- Ronnie Brewer can remember playing pickup games with Arkansas guards Jonathon Modica and Eric Ferguson four years ago.

"They were looking at me as this young high school guy coming into their gym," Brewer said. "But I think I gained their respect."

In Brewer's Arkansas career, they've certainly gained his respect, as has junior college transfer Dontell Jefferson, who will be honored along with Modica and Ferguson tonight on Senior Night before the Razorbacks play host to Mississippi State in Bud Walton Arena.

"We want to send them out the right way," Brewer said. "I don't think we're going to have any letdown. We know the importance of this game."

Arkansas (19-8, 8-6 in the Southeastern Conference) can probably clinch an NCAA Tournament berth by defeating the Bulldogs (14-13, 4-10), who bit the Hogs 69-67 in an SEC opener that was no fluke. Mississippi State is a talented young team, dangerous in transition.

"We feel we owe them one," Brewer said.

Modica has started all 27 games this season, Jefferson 23 and Ferguson just four, although Ferguson has been starting lately.

"I hope it's a really special night," said Hogs coach Stan Heath. "All three of our seniors are good kids and they've done a lot. I think they deserve a lot of credit for their perseverance, commitment and character."

Modica, 13th in career points at Arkansas with 1,492, lit a fire under the Hogs with his 37-point game against South Carolina early last month.

He thought briefly about leaving the UA after a disappointing junior season, but instead has come back with a vengeance to become a team leader.

"I'm excited about Senior Night," Modica said. "I've thought about it ever since I saw my first Senior Night. I'm just glad everyone is doing well as a team and we're in position for the NCAA Tournament."

Ferguson, Heath's first recruit at Arkansas, wondered if he'd ever see this night when he was playing for Milford (Conn.) Academy.

"In prep school, a lot of things were not good," Ferguson said. "Some of the football players used to break into our rooms. It's a blessing for me to be in college. After I got here, my best friend (from Hempstead High in Long Island, N.Y.) got stabbed to death."

Ferguson, who never knew his father, said a New York policeman named Marlin Bottoms befriended him, became his mentor and encouraged him in basketball and life.

"Everything happens for a reason," Ferguson said. "He's like my father."

Bottoms and his wife plan to attend tonight's game. Ferguson said his mother, Margaret Ferguson, would be at home tending to nieces and nephews.

Jefferson's mother, Altanese Williams of Lithonia, Ga., also will be unable to attend.

"It will just be my and my teammates," Jefferson said, smiling. "We'll try to enjoy the moment, play hard and keep winning."

Heath joked that Ferguson came to Arkansas partly because he only had to beat out Blake Eddins at point guard. But Heath also noted, "There was the (former UA guard) Kareem Reid factor --he's kind of a legend in New York."

Jefferson, who was recruited by Georgia, Georgia State and Oklahoma, said the Arkansas fans made the difference in his decision.

"On my visit, I saw how they encouraged their team," Jefferson said. "I'm glad I came here. I've gotten better and established new relationships. This year we've had such great team chemistry."

Though he's given way to Brewer, Ferguson and Sean McCurdy at times in recent games as Heath has sought more stability at point guard, Jefferson has continued to play solid minutes defensively. Importantly, he's never complained.

"We just need to stay focused," Jefferson said.

Many Arkansas fans will best remember Jefferson as the late-game hero in a 65-64 win over Kansas at Maui that kept the NCAA Tournament committee's attention through the tough times this season. But few would think of Jefferson as a prankster.

"Funniest moment?" Jefferson said. "Last year in the dorm. Me, Ronnie (Brewer), Vincent Hunter and Olu (Famutimi) had seen the "Grudge" movie and there was this scary sound effect. After Vincent went to sleep, we all made that sound and he jumped up and got scared. It was kinda funny."

Heath is clearly proud of his senior trio.

"I know as much pressure as I've felt to get to the NCAA Tournament, they've felt the same amount," Heath said. "I'm proud of how they've grown. Modica and Ferguson have been here four years and Dontell for two. Pookie (Modica) and Eric have both scored 1,000 points -- they're playing their best basketball and it couldn't come at a better time."

Heath didn't limit his praise to the seniors.

"The biggest thing that has helped us lately is our inside play," he said. "Darian Townes, Charles Thomas, Steven Hill and Hunter are all sophomores and I can see them all blossoming. The energy Hunter brings is exactly what we need, and Darian is a force inside."

Heath acknowledged, however, "It helps our young players that we've won some close games down the stretch. We seem to have a good understanding of what to do in these games now. We pretty much know that things are going through Ronnie, and he's going to make things happen."

Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury hopes to counter with undersized 6-8 center Charles Rhodes, 6-4 guard/forward Jamont Gordon, 6-3 guard/forward Dietric Slater and 6-4 twin guards Reginald and Richard Delk.

"Arkansas will have a lot of emotion on Senior Night, so we better have some poise," Stansbury said.

Hawgs Daily Top Stories