Saving Christmas

With the fate of its Christmas cheer hanging in the balance Tuesday night at Bud Walton Arena, the Razorback basketball team used heart and hustle to overcome a potential holiday villain and make its yuletide brighter. This Hawgs Illustrated story is brought to you free by Coke Zero.

With it being the holiday season, it might have been The Grinch Who Almost Stole Christmas who paid a visit to University of Arkansas head basketball coach John Pelphrey and his Razorbacks Tuesday night at Bud Walton Arena.

Or it could have been any of the other great Christmas villlians such as It's a Wonderful Life's Mr. Potter, A Christmas Carol's Ebenezer Scrooge, Trading Place's Randolph and Mortimer Duke, A Christmas Story's Scut Farkus or even Granville Sawyer, the evil shrink who had the sheer audacity to institutionalize Santa Claus to the Bellevue in Miracle on 34th Street.

All Pelphrey knew was it appeared somebody was about to go all Burgermeister Meisterburger on him when Caleb Patterson got an uncontested lay-up at the buzzer to send the Razorbacks' home game with unbeaten Missouri State into overtime.

It was enough to make one want to get Festivus (of Seinfeld fame) started right then and there with the "Airing Of Grievances" and "Feats Of Strength" when Marcus Britt slipped and Patterson ended up with his easy basket that forced an extra five minutes of action.

"I don't know what that was," Pelphrey said. "I don't know if that was The Ghost of Christmas Past or what. But Marcus fell down after taking like two steps. I have no idea. That line must have jumped up and got him. That Hog must have tripped him. I don't know how he fell down."

But instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the Razorbacks responded by completing a 66-62 victory over the Bears before a season-high crowd of 10,853 at Bud Walton Arena over what Pelphrey and his team thought was the best team they have played so far this season.

It was Arkansas' fifth straight win after a 2-5 start to the season.

"When you are tough and you are a team and you show resolve, you don't let whatever is going on effect you," Pelphrey said. "I felt like there were moments in that basketball game where you could have said, 'go ahead and knock me out' – but those guys stayed on their feet and they kept swinging and we made a few plays down the stretch and had a chance to win the basketball game."

Rotnei Clarke had his team's last 12 points, including the last seven points of the game, and a team-high 19 in the win.

Rest assured he did not want to be thinking about a loss over the Christmas break – which will have the team off until practice on Sunday.

"They were undefeated so that was big to knock them off, especially here in our building," Clarke said. "Now we don't have to deal with a loss for the Christmas break that we have. We can take our momentum into Christmas break and hopefully continue it with these tough games we have coming up.

"...It is a early Christmas present," Clarke added later. "I can go in not having to worry about anything, just relax a little bit and get ready to go when we come back."

  Pelphrey reacted very emotionally right after the hard-fought win. It was a game that grew a little chippy between the two teams as it went along with double technicals, double fouls, hard fouls and more than a few words exchanged between the two teams.

Arkansas' players rushed to each other when their was a flare-up – a certain sign of unity and one that didn't go unnoticed in a game that the Razorbacks knew was very important.

Pelphrey – whose post-game press conference was interrupted three minutes in by a fire alarm and moved outside the arena - was still a little fiesty himself after the game when asked by a Springfield television reporter if a win over Missouri State was a jumping off point for his program.

"No we're the University of Arkansas," Pelphrey said sternly. "We've spring-boarded pretty high already. We're very happy to be 7-5 and have a chance to get a few days off here. When we come back we've got a lot more teams coming in here that are very good. We understand who we are and understand this was a good win tonight, but we've got to get better because tonight we didn't win because we played so well, we won because of how hard those guys competed. They refused to stop and they refused to be knocked out."

Pelphrey seemed to indicate that was his attitude as well. Asked about the toughness of a stretch where his team lost 19 of 23 games before getting on this current five-game win streak, Pelphrey said he didn't care about whether people were talking about how hot his seat is or that he might not be back next year.

 "My focus is with this basketball team," Pelphrey said. " I know who I work for. Those guys have been - to my face - very supportive and I believe them. I'm here because I wanted to come to Arkansas. Someone gave us the opportunity and I'm here. We're going to work and just because we've won a few games in a row doesn't mean we can't lose a few games in a row here in the next week. "I don't work for the approval of everybody else," Pelphrey added. "I think everybody likes nice things being said about them but I don't wake up on a daily basis and have to have that. I know what my job is and it's to help these young men become better individuals and with school, and with ball. We're going to do that.

"Arkansas deserves that and this program deserves that," Pelphrey continued. "We're going to work toward that. Academically we had some pretty cool things happen this semester. Last year's team did some really good things academically . Our character is growing. I'm excited about the three guys we signed and the guys we're going to have the opportunity to sign down he road. This is where I want to be and nothing weakens that resolve. I know we can't win every game we play but we're going to work toward that."

Things certainly don't get any easier after Christmas for the Razorbacks with a Dec. 30th game against Baylor (9-1) in North Little Rock followed up by Bud Walton Arena games with UAB (11-1) on Ja,. 2 and expected No. 1 Texas (11-0) on Jan. 6 before SEC play kicks in after a nine-day break after that game with the Longhorns.

Baylor beat UAB beat UT-Arlington 94-63 last Sunday, UAB downed Butler 67-57 on Tuesday night while Texas whipped No. 10 North Carolina and No. 9 Michigan State on Saturday and Tuesday, respecitively.

But at least Arkansas goes into the final three games of that stretch with some momentum and feeling better about itself- and could be ready to add starting point guard Courtney Fortson back into the line-up.

"It was huge for us," Clarke said. "That is basically all we talked about is being able to finish off strong. We were just focused on getting our seventh win and going into the Christmas break knowing we have some momentum going in. That is what we really needed."

Michael Washington gives thanks to The Man above for the win.

Rotnei Clarke celebrates his big 3-pointer with 18 seconds left that gave the Razorbacks the lead for good.

Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey cracks a smile during Tuesday night's game.


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