Arkansas Wins, Again

ATLANTA — With one swirling move down the lane, Gary Ervin crossed over the thin line between out of control and clutch.

For at least one day, the transfer from Mississippi State shed that too-wild moniker that followed him from Starkville, Miss., to Fayetteville. His basket with 12 seconds to play — Arkansas' first true last-second game-winner of the year — was worth a 72-71 victory over Vanderbilt and crafted a temporary distraction to the Stan Heath rumors. After a timeout with 23 seconds to play, Heath huddled with his assistants for an inordinate amount of time and then sat in a chair — assistant Dan Hipsher kneeling by him — to explain the final plan of attack to his players. There were other options, Hipsher said, but they fell apart and Ervin "just made a play." Ervin's reward was a stylish Charles Thomas body lift, clean and slam that Hulk Hogan would have applauded. With the victory in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament, Arkansas is one win away from resurfacing as a possible NCAA Tournament team. To stake a credible claim, the Razorbacks must beat Mississippi State, an overtime winner over Kentucky and a team in the same situation as Arkansas. The Razorbacks and Bulldogs are among the three tournament semifinalists from the supposedly inferior Western Division. Packing for three days at the most, the only clean dress shirt remaining is Kentucky blue, but at least I can wear it without fear of reprimand from the Arkansas faithful. The Arkansas-Vandy postgame stuff was so giddy that Heath's future was bumped to topic No. 2 and whether to say yes to the NIT was No. 3. A bottomless pit, the rumor mill has been so prolific that an insider tried to flag down the Chick-fil-A cow rather than take a question in the foyer prior to the game. Ervin's play will get all the attention it deserves, but the Razorbacks were in a position to win because of something that happened minutes earlier. Vanderbilt scored nine straight for a 60-52 lead with 6:43 to play — a point at which the Razorbacks have run out of responses in the past. "We didn't hang our heads," Heath said. "We just pressed on." Thomas' pass was deflected, but Patrick Beverley caught it and made two free throws. Stefan Welsh banked one home, but Vandy's fifth 3 in six second-half attempts upped the lead to 63-58. Derrick Byars, voted SEC Player of the Year by the league coaches, missed a long one. The offense produced an inside-out pass from Thomas to Sonny Weems for 3 and Darian Townes picked up a loose ball for a dunk and 65-63. Picked off on a hard screen by 245-pound Ted Skuchas, the 180-pound Welsh hit the deck, but Byars missed an open shot and Welsh was up and ready for more. Beverley's three-point play gave Arkansas the lead, but nothing comes easy in the SEC. Ahead 70-69, Beverley tried to lean into a defender, but the official refused to bite and the freshman's shot missed everything. Byars missed and Sonny Weems lost his balance on the rebound. Fooled badly by a fake on the inbounds pass, Arkansas gave up an easy one and fell behind 71-70. It was another one of those moments to put up or fold up. Just before taking the court, the Arkansas players were witnesses to the chasm of emotions that go with giving it all. Mississippi State players bounced down the carpeted ramp, some of them arm in arm, passing close enough for Beverley to shake hands with Mississippi State's Dietric Slater. A couple of MSU folks wished good luck to Ervin, calling the Mississippi State transfer by his first name. Solemnly, the Kentucky players followed, almost single file. Nobody said a word. Fifteen minutes earlier, the Razorbacks had been in the same area, peeking around the curtain for a big-screen view of Jamont Gordon's tying 3-pointer at the buzzer of regulation. Ready at the time, an assistant gathered them up for a regrouping. Caught up in Gordon's shot, Darian Townes bounced out of the door, each index finger in the air. Maybe he was just practicing for later. ---- Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media's Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is hking@arkansasnews.com.

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