ATLANTA - Stan Heath and his Razorbacks just keep kicking dirt off of themselves and straight at the people who have had them buried for the past couple of weeks.
Gary Ervin's lay-up with 12 seconds left proved to be the game-winner when he gathered in a rebound of Shan Foster's missed 3-pointer and the University of Arkansas downed Vanderbilt 72-71 Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament.
"It was an amazing game for us, to be down eight and things not looking very good, " Heath said. "...To be able to come back and fight and scratch and play with some toughness - that showed a lot of character from our basketball team. Sometimes you are just blessed."
Ervin, who has suffered through his share of criticism for not coming through in late game situations, had to take the ball to the basket himself when Darian Townes, Weems and Beverley were all blanketed.
"I wanted to go with the play we had set, but when I couldn't get the ball to Darian and then Sonny was open for the skip pass, I had to make something happen," Ervin said. "So I made a move to the hoop hoping to be able to dish off to someone for a basket or finish or at least get fouled. It feels great because it was for our team, not just for me."
The win was the fourth straight for the Razorbacks (20-12) and moved them into a noon semifinal game on Saturday against SEC West co-champ Mississippi State (18-12), who eliminated Kentucky 84-82 in overtime earlier Friday.
"We better have a full tank," Heath said of a matchup in which the two have split this season. "If we don't have a full tank against Mississippi State, we'll have problems."
Patrick Beverly had 18 points and Sonny Weems 17 for Arkansas, who also put themselves squarely on the bubble with the their second win over Vandy in less than a week.
"Everybody to a man, never quit, never gave up, kept fighting and great things happened," Heath said.
The win set off a wild celebration with players piling on each other on the floor and Beverly actually running over a cop and sending him flying as he ran to celebrate with the Arkansas fans.
"He straight trucked that cop," Weems said while laughing. "He was just excited. That was the cop's fault. He was in the way of a happy, happy guy."
Beverley planned to apologize after the game.
"Oh, man, I heard he like flipped," Beverley said. "I am sorry about that. I am going to have to go out there and apologize about that. It wasn't like. I was just trying to get to my mom and the fans and celebrate."
Heath said he believes his team deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament, but doesn't think he can count on that just yet.
"Absolutely - no question about it," Heath said. "Anybody who has been watching this team, there is no way you can look at it and say that team does not belong in the 65.
"...We still have some basketball to play and we don't want to leave anything to chance," Heath said. "And winning (the tournament) is the only thing that gurantees you that spot."
Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings - whose squad lost its last two games to Arkansas - prasied both teams for their effort.
"I thought it was a great college basketball game," Stalling said. "I thought both teams played just as hard as they could play. They made one more play than we did."
Arkansas led by as much as 8 in the second half, but then trailed by the same margin later on and appeared to be running out of gas.
But Weems - not normally a vocal sort - stepped up in the huddle and demanded that his team would not roll over.
"Sonny was in the huddle and said "we are not going to lose, we are not going to lose,"' Heath said. "He was boisterous about it and very animated about it. Our team fed off of that. Sonny has been a winner - he's used to winning high school state championships and junior college national championships and he wanted to win. That emotion sparked us on."
After that suddenly the Razorbacks went on a 14-5 run over the next several minutes, finally taking a 66-65 lead on Beverley's old-fashioned three-point play.
The lead changed hands four times after that, the next-to-last time when Ross Neltner gave the Commodores (20-11) a 71-70 advantage on inbound play with just 29 seconds left.
Arkansas got a timeout to set up a play, but the first option to post Darian Townes was covered and forced Ervin to look across the court to where Sonny Weems was situated.
When that also was covered, Ervin – who has come under criticism for his late-game play this season, spun past defender Jermaine Beal and drove to the hoop for the game-deciding basket.
Foster then had a great look from the left-corner, but he missed and Ervin hauled in the rebound to secure the win and set off a wild celebration by the Razorbacks.
Ironically although the Eastern Division dominated the much-maligned Western Division during the season, there will be three West teams in the final four of the SEC event.
"The coaches all know this league is off the charts," Heath said. "It's so talented. Very well coached. good players, different styles and systems you have to play against. There are no bottom feeders where you can just go out and get six wins."
Charles Thomas added 11 points for Arkansas in the win while Derrick Byars led Vandy with 15, Foster added 13 and Dan Cage chipped in 12.
The Razorbacks shot 46.3 percent from the field and outrebounded the Commodores 37-27 while committing 12 turnovers.
Sonny Weems shoots over Derrick Byars
Arkansas head coach Stan Heath celebrates after his team's 72-71 win over Vanderbilt on Friday
Arkansas 72, Vandy 71
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