Heading Down the Stretch

FAYETTEVILLE -- Today, when it seems Arkansas most definitely is on the threshold of its first NCAA Tournament in five years, does anyone really care what happened on Jan. 7 in Starkville, Miss.?

It's highly doubtful.

After Arkansas beat Mississippi State 80-70 in a college basketball game in front of a season-high home crowd of 19,833 in Bud Walton Arena on Wednesday night, it didn't seem any Razorbacks fans were thinking about the first meeting between the two schools on Jan. 7.

On that date, the Bulldogs beat the Razorbacks 69-67 in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.

On Wednesday p.m., Arkansas (20-8 overall, 9-6 in the SEC) wiped away that memory on senior night in the final SEC athletic battle in Bud Walton Arena this season.

"It was a good way to go out," said Razorbacks senior guard Eric Ferguson. "We didn't care how much we won by, we just wanted to leave on a positive note, especially us seniors.

"And we did."

Senior backcourt mate Jonathon Modica went out with a bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, hitting 6 of 9 3-point attempts -- by the way, they were six straight over two halves -- to lead the Razorbacks with 26 points.

"I was really happy for our seniors," said Arkansas coach Stan Heath. "They went 15-1 at home this season, which was an incredible record. Jonathon Modica had an outstanding four years. He is playing the best he has ever played this year and playing well all around with shooting, defense and rebounding.

"Eric Ferguson had perseverance and heart all four years. He went through the trenches with us. You've got to give (Razorbacks point guard) Dontell Jefferson credit. He plays with emotion and communicates well with his team.

"He plays to win and is a strong leader on this team. He is always willing to sacrifice scoring to help the team."

Not overlooked by the enthusiastic crowd, especially the student section, was the performance of 6-foot-7 junior guard Ronnie Brewer, who might have played his last home game, too.

There is strong speculation he's going to declare for the NBA Draft in June.

Brewer neither confirmed nor denied that as fact or fiction after he finished with 23 points, a team-high 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.

"It's a wonderful atmosphere and I love playing here," he said. "The fans are really great. They are the best fans in the world. We have a lot of games left this season.

"Whenever that's over, I'll figure out what I'm going to do."

Brewer pointed out Arkansas still has to play Georgia on the road Sunday, then the SEC Tournament on March 9-12 in Nashville, Tenn.

And probably -- really, there's no question about that -- beyond.

Arkansas last played in the NCAA Tournament in 2001. To be exact, it met Georgetown on March 15, 2001, in Boise, Idaho, losing63-61 on a buzzer-beater layup in the first round of the West Regional.

That 2000-2001 Razorbacks team was the last one -- before this season -- to reach the 20-win plateau, finishing out 20-11.

Of course, Razorbacks players aren't willing to look back, choosing only to look ahead to playing at Georgia on Sunday.

Arkansas takes a four-game winning streak to Athens, Ga., and suddenly has become the hottest team in the league.

"That's our next step to take and keep playing well," Brewer said. "If we do that, we'll be fine, but we can't look past anyone."

Razorbacks forward Charles Thomas agreed.

"We need to keeping going and take care of business," Thomas said. "We've gotten closer. It's us against the world and that is the mindset we are going to take the rest of the way."

Heath nodded.

"We want to continue to play well and hopefully win on the road," Heath said. "From now on, there are no more home games and all games are on the road."

That's exactly what Brewer's thinking.

"First, we had to defend our home and we did that," he said. "Now, we have to take our game at home on the road and then we can win some more games.

"That's our goal."

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