Earlier this week Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury talked about how tough it would be to play at the University of Arkansas on Senior Night.
Thing is, the Razorbacks don't have any seniors.
But they do have one that would have been a senior had he stayed in Starkville.
Former Bulldog Gary Ervin terrorized his old team with 20 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds and true freshman Stefan Welsh added a career-high 16 points as Arkansas rallied to down SEC Western Division co-leading Mississippi State 67-58 before an announced crowd of 12,784 fans at Bud Walton Arena.
I think we were a little bit embarrased about the Tennessee game (an 83-72 home loss last Saturday)," Arkansas head coach Stan Heath said. "They pushed us around a little bit and we didn't respond to it. I thought Mississippi State probably watched the tape and decided they were going to do the same thing, but we decided this was our house and it was not going to happen at all and it definitely shouldn't happen in your own house.
"That's the attitude that the guys took tonight and the attitude that if we take all the time for 40 minutes would make a big difference in our team," Heath added.
Ervin echoed those sentiments about his team, who was 10-fo-20 from 3-point range on the night.
"We know we are a tough team," said Ervin, who was blanked in the two team's earlier game at Arkansas. "We've let a couple of teams come in here and out-tough us, and we weren't going to let that happen tonight. We used whatever it took to get us going.
Heath thought a key point in the game came when Arkansas and Mississippi State players did some pushing and shoving early in the second half.
It started between Ervin and Charles Rhodes, but Steven Hill stepped in as an enforcer and Patrick Beverley and others were readt to throw down if needed.
"I thought the turning point in the game was when we got in a little scuffle down there on the baseline," Heath said. "I saw guys just man up. No punches were thrown, but I saw everybopdy sticking up for their teammate, everybody looking eye to eye at the opponent and saying that is not going to happen. We are not going to back down. That showed me a lot. That took the focus away from us thinking so much and we just started to play."
Beverley and Sonny Weems added 10 each for the Razorbacks (17-12, 6-9), who had lost four of their last five games and were playing their last regular season home game.
There has been some speculation that it could also be the final home game of Heath's tenure at Arkansas if his team does not win next week's SEC Tournament - the only way they can make the NCAA Tournament at this stage.
"I've been trying to get this guys just to focus in on just playing, playing hard, playing with great effort, playing team basketball and just leaving it all out there on the floor," Heath said. "And having some fun with it, too. I don't think we had a whole lot of fun in the first half, but I know we had a whole lot of fun in the locker room after the game."
Beverley was very strong in his statements after the game.
"Our coach is not going anywhere," Beverley said. "We are going to win the SEC Tournament. Quote me on that."
Weems says that Heath did mention the turmoil before the game.
"Coach (Heath) told us don't worry about anything else, just play for each other as a family," Weems said. "We're not ready for the season to be over. We're getting ready to go on a run, starting Saturday (at Vanderbilt)."
Jamont Gordon had 23 points and Rhodes 22 for the Bulldogs (16-12. 7-8), who despite losing and being under .500 in league play are tied with Alabama, Ole Miss and Auburn for first in the West.
Gordon was just 6-of-18 from the field on a night when Mississippi State shot 31.7 percent from the field and were 1-for-15 from 3-point range after Coach Rick Stansbury's club had been 11-of-19 from beyond the arc in the Bulldogs' 84-60 win over the Razorbacks in Starkville on Feb. 14.
"Bottom line is they shot the ball and we didn't," Stansbury said. "Our kids battled and battled, but Welsh came off the bench and made a difference. Those three (Welsh, Ervin and Beverley) came up with big shots at big times."
Arkansas, who trailed 50-44 at one point, remains in fifth in the West race.
Beverley's 3-pointer with 5:04 left in the game gave the Razorbacks a 56-55 lead and although Rhodes tied it seconds later, Arkansas would never trail again.
Ervin scored on a driving lay-up and then Beverley – who had just one point at halftime – buried another 3-pointer to put Arkansas up 61-56 with 3:48 remaining in the game.
Beverley then added three free throws after being fouled on his patented pump fake while shooting a 3-pointer, Thomas added a free throw and then Ervin had the pleasure of nailing the final nail in his old team's coffin with a pair of charity tosses with 39 seconds left.
"Gary Ervin - hat's off to him," Heath said. "He was wanting to do well, wanting to play well, but wanting his team to win most of all. I thought he kind of just will our team to the win in a big way."
Arkansas did show some fight – literally – with 16:28 left in the game when Ervin was fouled on a drive and then he and Rhodes jawed at each other and tempers flared.
A scrum occurred – including the 7-0, 250-pound Hill expressing his displeasure at Rhodes.
That got the crowd back into the game as the referees reviewed the tape to see if anybody had landed a punch and determined that nothing should be called.
"Our team was ready to stand up for each other," Heath said. "That's what I wanted to see - that Razorback fight."
It was the second time in the game that Arkansas showed some fight with Welsh sprinting the length of the court to keep Gordon from getting a uncontested lay-up – a move that brought a prolonged cheer from the crowd.
The only thing that kept Arkansas in the game in the first half was the shooting of Welsh, who had been mired on the bench since he, Ervin and Weems were disciplined for the earlier Mississippi State.
Welsh hit 4-of-4 from the field in the opening 20 minutes with a trio of them coming from behind the 3-point arc in just seven minutes of action.
His final 3-pointer came with 3.4 seconds left in the first half and pulled Arkansas within 32-30 at intermission.
"Stefan Welsh had a hot hand," Heath said. "He was on fire tonight. He came through for us at a valuable time. He lit a fire for us, especially in the first half."
That performance came a night after Welsh had called Heath.
"He came out of the blue and just called and said "Coach, I'm ready. I'm ready and I can help.' I took him at his word, he was sincere and he proved it."
That capped a 15-5 run to end the first half after Reginald Delk's lay-up had given the Bulldogs a 27-17 lead with 3:48 remaining before the break.
The spree included seven points by Ervin and six by Welsh.
Arkansas closes out its regular season at Vanderbilt on Saturday in a non-televised game that has been switched to noon.
"Hopefully we will take our act on the road," Heath said, "and play tough, play physical and play aggressive."
Arkansas 67, MSU 58
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