NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—The Arkansas Razorbacks think they’ve hit on a winning combination of stingy defense and strong rebounding. Now they must see how far it can take them.
Gary Ervin scored 21 points, and Arkansas upset 19th-ranked Vanderbilt 82-67 on Saturday to keep the Razorbacks’ slim NCAA tournament hopes alive.
“I like this team and like the direction we are headed in,” Arkansas coach Stan Heath said.
“I can tell you there’s a bunch of happy guys in our locker room. The light bulb is really turned on right now for our guys. All of them are stepping up, playing for each other and relay focused on what they can (do) to help us win.”
The Commodores (20-10, 10-6), who came in looking to go undefeated at home in the Southeastern Conference for the first time since 1993, had their 13-game home winning streak snapped. The winning streak had been Vanderbilt’s longest under Kevin Stallings.
Arkansas (18-12, 7-9) now needs Mississippi State to beat Alabama on Sunday to clinch the No. 3 seed in the Western Division. That would let the Razorbacks play South Carolina in the second game of the SEC tournament on Thursday. A Mississippi State loss makes Arkansas the West’s fourth-seed.
But the Razorbacks improved to 4-2 against Top 25 teams by beating Vanderbilt, and they dominated most of the game by outshooting and outrebounding (42-30) the Commodores.
Patrick Beverley added 20 points for Arkansas, which now has won two straight. Michael Washington had 15.
“We need to continue to play like this,” Beverley said. “This was a great road win, and we are going to head into the SEC tournament really confident. We need to stick to the drawing board and keep up the intensity as well.”
Derrick Byars led Vanderbilt with 19 points, and Dan Cage added 15. Shan Foster, who had a career-high 33 points in an overtime victory over South Carolina on Wednesday night, had eight points on 3-of-10 shooting.
“It’s really kind of a stinging feeling right now,” Cage said.
The Commodores started sloppy and never really settled down, struggling with fundamentals like passing, leading to eight Arkansas steals.
Vanderbilt shot 31.7 percent (19-of-60), just barely above its worst performance of the season. The Commodores have lost each regular season finale in Stallings’ eight seasons, and Stallings said he wished he had done a better job getting them ready to play.
“These guys have been pretty consistent all year long in playing with great energy and great effort. We were just a step off of our energy level today, I thought,” Stallings said.
Byars’ frustration showed when he pulled off his headband late in the first half, threw it to the side and fouled Stefan Welsh on a 3-point shot. Welsh hit all three free throws. Byars said he give Arkansas credit for guarding them as physically as anyone in the conference.
Vandy came in as SEC’s top 3-point shooting team. The Commodores hit only 8-of-28.
“It hurts a lot,” Byars said. “You look at the stat sheet … we’re not a shooting team like that. The coaching staff said that when we’re not getting it done on offense, we have to get some stops. Unfortunately, it was difficult to do either.”
The game was tied at 12 when Arkansas went on a 15-3 run and hit six of its next eight shots to take control of the game. Ervin hit a 3-pointer and capped the spurt with a layup for a 27-15 lead with 6:51 left.
Arkansas led 38-26 at halftime and built that lead to 16 early in the second half.
Vanderbilt managed to pull within 60-55 with 6:11 to go on a jumper by Byars. The Commodores even forced a shot clock violation after Darian Townes missed a dunk, but Byars missed a jumper.
The Razorbacks then put away their latest upset with a 9-2 spurt started on a basket by Sonny Weems. A pair of free throws by Townes pushed the Arkansas lead back to double digits at 69-57 with 3:04 to go.
“I thought we really focused in that situation and made some plays offensively and defensively,” Heath said. “We bent, but didn’t crack. For our young team to step up like that, it’s a good sign.”