NCAA Bound

Arkansas uses toughness to take a win away from Vanderbilt 81-75 Friday afternoon in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.

ATLANTA — All season long, Arkansas' coaches have pleaded with their players. Be tougher, they urged constantly. Be stronger, they demanded. Show more desire, show more passion, they cried.

Their message seems to have finally registered.

And because of that, the Razorbacks left no doubt Friday that they'd see "Arkansas" flash up as an NCAA Tournament team on CBS' Selection Sunday Show. Arkansas defeated No. 18 Vanderbilt 81-75 in the Georgia Dome in a Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal, and one simple reason can describe why: The Razorbacks were tougher.

"That's the way to survive in March," said Arkansas senior Gary Ervin, who scored a team-high 18 points along with senior Darian Townes. "You look at a lot of games around the country, and those are the teams that survive. Getting the 50-50 balls, the loose balls, the rebounds, drawing charges.

"Those are the things that win ballgames."

Ervin's explanation rings true especially when you consider what Arkansas overcame to topple Vanderbilt for the fifth consecutive time. Leading scorer Sonny Weems tallied just three points.

Weems and second leading scorer Patrick Beverley combined to miss 16 of their 20 shots. And, once again, the Razorbacks (21-10) battled foul trouble, so much so that Arkansas coach John Pelphrey made 24 substitutions — before halftime.

But by dominating Vanderbilt (26-7) in every physical aspect, the Razorbacks prevailed despite those deficiencies.

Arkansas grabbed 45 rebounds to Vanderbilt's 24. The Razorbacks snagged 22 offensive rebounds, their second-highest total this season. They came up with nearly every loose ball, and they watched senior Charles Thomas draw three charges.

"It just came down to heart and toughness, who wanted it more," Townes said. "We went to the glass strong and hard. We made key free throws. We just gave it our all."

Sounds so simple, yet that attitude has evaded the Razorbacks far too often away from Bud Walton Arena. Not on Friday, though. Every Razorback who played contributed. Even Weems, who went 1-for-9 from the field, grabbed six rebounds and played an integral role in holding SEC player of the year Shan Foster to 14 points.

Early on, it was sophomore guard Stefan Welsh exploding for 11 quick points. Later, it was Ervin making astute decisions and converting timely shots. Late in the second half, it was Steven Hill blocking two shots. Throughout the whole game, it was a constant toughness, an ever-present hustle that fueled Arkansas, which advanced to a semifinal at noon today against No. 4 Tennessee.

Weems' attitude and Beverley's heart epitomized this in the final minutes. With 1:35 left, Pelphrey called timeout with Arkansas leading 69-64. Before he was able to address the Razorbacks, Beverley tried to shout encouragement despite dislocating his jaw moments earlier. Weems needed just nine words to get his point across. "I know you guys don't want to go home," Weems barked at his teammates.

The Razorbacks didn't, evident from their continuous toughness. They repeatedly slapped the ball away from the Commodores. They dove to the floor often for loose balls. They held Vanderbilt freshman center A.J. Ogilvy to one point in the second half after he scored 13 before halftime.

On the offensive end, they were strong with the ball and nailed free throws down the stretch. They started a dismal 4-for-10 from the free throw line but made 11 straight late in the contest — four by Ervin, four by Beverley, two by Thomas and one by Weems.

Altogether, the effort looked like the kind an NCAA Tournament team produces on a regular basis, the kind of effort Arkansas' coaches have requested for so long.

"When it got tough, we were able to make the toughness plays you need to win," Pelphrey said.



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