ATLANTA – When interviewed in the locker room after Saturday's SEC Tournament win over Mississippi State, University of Arkansas players were reluctant to talk about their head coach's status because of his advice not to do so.
But sitting next to Razorback head coach Stan Heath on the podium a little bit later in the media room, several players had plenty to say about him after the 81-72 victory.
Not to mention the fifth-year head coach himself who opened up more Saturday than he previously had since reports he was going to be let go if his team didn't make the NCAA Tournament.
"Believe it or not, I really am genuinely happy for my players and for my wife and kids," Heath said. "It probably bothers them more than it does me.
" As a coach you go into this field and know you are a target," Heath added. " You know that people are going to like you, people are not going to like you. You get to the point where it really doesn't matter."
UA junior forward Sonny Weems said the team – which has won five straight since the speculation surfaced - is solidly behind its head coach.
"I tip my hat to Coach (Heath)," Weems said. "We're behind him 100 percent. You hear a lot of things going on outside about him, but on the court, you know with 13 players and the coaching staff, we really know what is going on."
Charles Thomas, who had 18 points and 18 rebounds in the game, echoed those same sentiments and how Heath has handled the situation.
"I think any other coach in this situation, with what's being said, would have folded," Thomas said. "He stepped behind his team and the coaching staff and believed in us."
Gary Ervin said that Heath's public demeanor is really a façade.
"Everybody thinks Coach Heath is just a quiet, calm guy and that's not true at all," Ervin said. "He's firey. And it starts with him. He could have given up on us (after) losing a couple of games at home and on the road. But instead he stayed confident and just told us to go out and have fun. Just play to win and we did a good job of that. We followed his lead."
Heath said his philosophy was just to get his team's focus off his situation and simply for them to bond around each other.
"This feels great because those guys in the locker room stayed together, they have fought, battled and competed and they put all those other things aside that maybe slowed us during the early part of the season," Heath said. "…This has been a team effort from everybody within our inner circle. I am really happy, but we still have got one more game to play."
O o o
Perhaps no one got more joy from beating Mississippi State for the second time this season that Ervin, who transferred from that school to Arkansas.
He was lustily booed when he went scoreless down in Starkville and got the same type of treatment from the Bulldogs' fans in Atlanta on Saturday.
"Down in Starkville, it was kind of harsh and they were vicious," Ervin said. "It was a crazy crowd and things didn't go our, but we were on a neutral site today and I couldn't even hear what they were trying to say today. Our fans were making much noise anyway and they couldn't hold a candle to our crowd."
Ervin had a career-high 21 in his team's home win over Mississippi State and 11 of his 15 in the second half on Saturday.
"Our fans have been there for us the whole season, through the losing streak, through the three games we lost at home that we shouldn't have lost," Ervin said. "We have great fans."
Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury praised Ervin, a player he got crossways with while he was in Starkville.
"(He) played well," Stansbury said. "Jumped up and made some shots in the second half. Think at halftime he had four points. He played well, made some passes in the second half when they needed baskets. Gary's a good little player."
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