If the Razorbacks have not already beat down the door into the NCAA Tournament, surely it's just about to cave in.
Junior forward Charles Thomas lived up to his "Manimal" nickname with18 points and 18 rebounds and Sonny Weems chipped in 18 points and Gary Ervin 15 as the University of Arkansas rolled Mississippi State Mississippi State 81-72 Saturday afternoon in the SEC Tournament semifinals before 17,144 fans.
"I'm really proud of these guys," UA head coach Stan Heath said. "They showed the heart of a champion. We are playing our best basketball of the year right now. We did a lot of things well."
It was the fifth win in a row – tying the season-high – for the Razorbacks (21-12), who advance to meet Florida in the championship game at noon on Sunday.
Arkansas, which lost to Florida in the SEC's Football Championship game, will be trying to duplicate its four wins in four days feat in 2000 when it became just the second team ever to do so.
"We're taking this SEC Championship real serious," Weems said. "That's one step we have to go through to make it to the NCAA Tournament. But right now we're focused on the SEC Championship."
Heath thinks his team has done enough to be in the NCAA Tournament, but knows the only sure way is to grab the automatic bid reserved for the the SEC Tournament winner.
"It would be a huge feather for us to win an SEC Championship," Heath said. "A big thing. And I want us to be totally prepared for that. But in my opinion, it's really a no brainer (of getting an NCAA bid). I think we removed any doubts, any what ifs, that we belong in that field."
Not everyone is convinced that Arkansas is definitely in as evidenced by this quote from bracketologist Jerry Palm, who runs CollegeRPI.com.
"I think they need to go in with the mentality that they to have to win, because I think that is probably the case," Palm said. "The bubble has gotten smaller and that wasn't necessarily a tournament tam they beat today."
ESPN's Joe Lunardi also did not have Arkansas in his projected field of 65 as of yet.
Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury – wearing tennis shoes because of a heel injury – said Arkansas should be in and thinks his team is now out.
"I think, let's just be realistic, there is no question (that Mississippi State is out of the NCAA Tournament," Stansbury said. "I think the winner of this game was going to get in. Arkansas deserves a chance now to get to the NCAA Tournament. They srepped up today, knowing it was us or them."
The Razorbacks won in large part because they won the board battle 45-39 (including 21 offensive rebounds for Arkansas) and because they limited Mississippi State stars Jamont Gordon (10 points) and Charles Rhodes (8 points, 9 rebounds) to just 18 points combined.
They especially frustrated Gordon, the 6-4, 220-pound guard who spent the season driving end to end successfully - but did not on Saturday as he went 3-of-13 from the field.
"I have never seen a player, at least I haven't seen one personally, that has the ability to just get the ball from out of bounds or get the ball for the rebound and get to the basket no matter how matter how many defenders you have back. He just has a knack of getting to the rim.
"We just figured we'd have to put two guys on him (in the backcourt) to guard him until he slowed down," Heath added. "I called it corralling him. And that's what we tried to do. Couple of times it didn't work, but for the most part I think we kept him away from the basket."
As Heath pointed out, it's much easier to do when you have 7-0 Steven Hill - who had five blocks (four against Gordon).
"Having an eraser like Steven also made a difference because there were times he did get there and things were changed, too...He was a detractor around the rim for Mississippi State throughout the game."
Stansbury said Gordon was definitely tired after playing 42 minutes in the Bulldogs' 84-82 win over Kentucky on Friday.
"If there is one guy that had a reason to be a little fatigued today, it was Jamont Gordon," Stansbury said. "He played 42 minutes yesterday...Between him and Charles they're 1-for-16 in the first 38-and-a-half minutes of the game."
True freshmen Patrick Beverley and Michael Washington added 8 points each for Arkansas with fellow rookie Stefan Welsh and Hill adding 6 each and Darian Townes chipping in a bucket, 3 blocks and 2 assists.
Ervin, who transferred to Arkansas from Mississippi State and was booded by their fans when he touched the ball, had just two of his team's 13 turnovers while playing 34 minutes.
"We wouldn't be this far along if a few things hadn't happened," Heath said. "Gary has been so solid running our team. That's been a huge turnaround for us. Recently to get those bonus productions from from either Stef or Michael has been a big lift for our basketball team."
Rhodes perhaps best summed up the day for his team.
"It just hurts," Rhodes said. "If we would have gotten this game, we probably would have went to the NCAA and had a chance to win the SEC Tournament Championship. That's what hurts the most. Now we've got to get on a plane and go back to Starkville. So it's a down feeling right now."
Arkansas 81, MSU 72
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