The Hogs had failed in similar nail-biting situations this season. They couldn't rally past Appalachian State. They couldn't hold off South Carolina. They couldn't steal wins at Mississippi State, Kentucky and Alabama.
But Saturday was different. Arkansas prevailed 78-73, sending 18,366 fans home from Bud Walton Arena still believing in a March Madness appearance, and did so with clutch performances late.
In the last five minutes, Gary Ervin hit free throws and leapt high for a key rebound. Patrick Beverley awoke from his sophomore slump and drilled two crucial consecutive 3-pointers. Sonny Weems downed six straight free throws in the last 10 seconds. And because of the timely plays, Arkansas (19-9, 8-6) defeated its highest-ranked foe this season.
"It came down to crunch time and we just made those plays," Ervin said. "If you look at it, if we make those plays in those games on the road with two minutes left, who knows what our record is right now."
Arkansas coach John Pelphrey was also delighted. But the Hogs' poise and spirit down the stretch only further validated his frustrations with his erratic team: Intense and passionate at home, flaky and inconsistent on the road.
And Pelphrey wants the Jekyll-and-Hyde act to stop Tuesday night at Ole Miss.
"I don't know how to say this," Pelphrey said. "I'm happy that we won, but I'm not happy with this team. You saw some courage, some heart, some toughness, and I want to see that when we have to pack up our stuff and go on the road.
"We have to have a little more resolve, a little more character. We don't need mommy cutting corners off our bread all the time or cut our chicken nuggets up for us. We need to be men and go play that way."
The Razorbacks can't do anything about those previous failures. They can only move forward. But dreaming of hearing their school called on Selection Sunday just became a little easier.
Arkansas cemented its place as the No. 2 seed from the Western Division in the SEC Tournament with the victory, which the Ratings Percentage Index surely will reward. More than that, though, the Razorbacks regained the confidence lost from four losses in their previous five contests.
Led by Weems' 20 points, four Razorbacks scored in double figures.
"We proved we're not a one-man team," Beverley said. "We've looked like a one-man team sometimes lately."
Vanderbilt (24-5, 9-5) couldn't handle the balanced Arkansas attack early on. The Razorbacks shot 64 percent in the first half, connected on 12-of-14 shots during one 10-minute, first-half span and built a 40-28 lead.
"They made shots they haven't been making," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.
Arkansas stopped for a while, however. Vanderbilt went on an 8-1 run to close the first half, and the Commodores continued to battle back until they led 53-49 with 10:26 left. The Hogs trailed 59-58 five minutes later, facing the possibility of another lost opportunity at the hands of Shan Foster and A.J. Ogilvy.
Beverley, Ervin, Weems and unexpected gift from Vanderbilt's Ross Neltner ensured that didn't occur. Beverley hit his first of three late 3s for a 61-59 lead. Ervin dribbled in for a reverse layup. Beverley nailed back-to-back 3s.
"It was lovely," Weems said of seeing Beverley break out.
Foster, who led Vanderbilt with 22 points, kept lofting in amazing, contested shots, but Arkansas kept responding. Ervin capped a five-shot Vanderbilt possession by outleaping several Commodores for the rebound, and Arkansas then converted on nine of its last 10 free throws. Two of them were courtesy of Neltner, who called timeout when Vanderbilt didn't have any left with seven seconds left and Arkansas leading 74-73.
"I was like, ‘Whoa!'" Weems said. "I'm glad it worked in our favor."
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