Stayin' Alive

ATLANTA — Gary Ervin nabbed Shan Foster's 3-point miss and flung the ball high into the air, sparking a spontaneous celebration unlike any Arkansas had participated in this season.

Seconds later, Charles Thomas tackled Ervin, body-slamming him to the ground. Stefan Welsh then jumped on Ervin, screaming, "That's big time, baby! That's big time! That's big time!" Eventually, those three ended up at the bottom of a pile of Razorbacks on the Georgia Dome court Friday. Meanwhile, right after the buzzer sounded to end Arkansas' 72-71 quarterfinal victory over Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Patrick Beverley sprinted toward the Hogs' rooting section. Inadvertently, he slammed into a police officer, sending him skyward. "He straight trucked that cop," joked Sonny Weems, who trailed Beverley into the stands while yanking at his Cardinal red jersey with both hands. "He was just excited. That was the cop's fault. He was in the way of a happy, happy guy." The jubilant freshman was in desperate search of someone, and no one evidently was going to get between him and Lisa Beverley. "I just had to find my mom," Beverley said. "I wanted to give her a big old hug." Beverley never got to her. She was far up in the stands in Atlanta. But he settled for some high-fives with Thomas' father. Told of his blindsiding of a keeper of the peace, Beverley perked up. "I heard," Beverley said with an enormous smile. "I heard he flipped. I'm sorry about that. I'll have to go apologize about that." Finally, the Hogs retreated to the locker room for some more hoots and hollers. They had ample reason for the excessive revelry. Friday's victory moved Arkansas into the SEC Tournament semifinals for the first time since 2001. It gave the Hogs a 20-win season for the second straight campaign. And, the come-from-behind thriller positively added onto the Razorbacks' ever-improving NCAA Tournament resume. "I couldn't be prouder of my team," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. Six minutes and 43 seconds before the elation, the Razorbacks seemed destined for the NIT. Vanderbilt had battled back from an eight-point second-half deficit to take an eight-point lead of its own. After Jermaine Beal's 3-pointer made it 60-52, Heath called for a timeout. In that huddle, two important things occurred. Sonny Weems absolutely went off, screaming at teammates and encouraging a comeback. Also, Heath subbed Welsh in for Ervin. The freshman swiftly fueled the Razorback rally. "Every time I go in, I feel like I need to be the spark," Welsh said. "I'm real fiery. I was hungry to get out there and be the energy for us." A three-point play by Beverley capped a 14-5 spurt and put the Hogs up 66-65 with 2:37 left. On the next possession, Welsh drove wildly into the lane and missed a layup. That forced Heath to replace him with Ervin. As Welsh came off the floor, he grabbed Ervin by the jersey and said, "We need you. We need you." The Razorbacks, in fact, would need Ervin soon. Ross Neltner's layup gave Vanderbilt a 71-70 lead with 29 seconds remaining. Heath signaled for a timeout and drew up a play. Option No. 1 was Darian Townes. Option No. 2 was Weems. Neither was available, so Ervin free-lanced. Earlier in the season, Ervin struggled in similar situations. He missed two free throws in the final minute of a loss at Texas and committed two costly turnovers in the final minute of a defeat at Ole Miss. But this time, Ervin delivered. He got a step past Beal with a few left-handed dribbles. And when Beal recovered, Ervin spun back to the right and around him. Ervin's five-foot floater found the bottom of the basket. "I had to go back into my book," Ervin said. "I used to always get in the lane and do that little spin. He cut me off, and I just spun to the hoop." Arkansas had to sweat out Foster's wide-open 3-point attempt. But it was a few inches too long, and Ervin leapt high for the rebound. Utter chaos followed. "I'm just so happy because this team has been through so much adversity and we've all come together," Welsh said. "Our ultimate goal is to make it to the NCAA Tournament, and we're almost there."

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