UA women trying to restore identity

By: Nate Allen
Published: Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Tom Collen instructs his team from the sidelines of an exhibition win in Fayetteville.
Photo by Jason Ivester
Tom Collen instructs his team from the sidelines of an exhibition win in Fayetteville.

— The University of Arkansas’ corporate takeover of women’s athletics did away with the Lady ’Backs.

The women are supposed to be called Razorbacks, just like the men, following the UA’s merger of the men’s and women’s athletic departments, but now the former Lady ’Backs too often bear the cumbersome, nonmarketable moniker of Arkansas’ women’s basketball team.

Their identity has been lost, but this 7-1 team is worth finding. Now is as good a time as any.

Arkansas plays Kansas at 7 p.m. Thursday at Walton Arena, and there is no question this is the team’s biggest game until it opens the SEC season Jan. 6 against Texas A&M and former Arkansas coach Gary Blair in Fayetteville.

Arkansas has played some big games, including a 73-70 loss to No. 13 Oklahoma in Hawaii . It also managed victories over Oregon and Hawaii in Hawaii, plus victories at Tulsa and at Oral Roberts.

None of those was in Fayetteville.

Kansas (7-0), ranked 17th and a NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen team last season, is by far the most prestigious visitor to come to Walton Arena so far this season.

“The big games on our schedule in preseason were Oklahoma, Kansas and probably Oregon,” Collen said. “After that you list the road games early. Kansas is probably the last big test.”

A test, Collen describes, as “the measuring stick as to where we might be in the SEC.”

“Win or lose we need to be tested at a higher level,” Collen said. “If we can find a way to defeat a team like this it will give this team a shot in the arm, because this team is still trying to find its identity and prove to itself how good it can be.”

Didn’t last season’s 24-9 mark, which included two games in the NCAA Tournament (Arkansas’ first NCAA Tournament since Blair last took them there in 2003), prove Arkansas is pretty good?

“That was a lot of experience that graduated,” Collen said of five departed seniors. “These kids have to prove themselves all over again.”

So far Arkansas has thrived on the surprising play of forward Keira Peak, an alternate last season who is leading the team in scoring this season, and by bringing star senior center Sarah Watkins off the bench for instant offense. It’s also kept Watkins from being plagued by early foul trouble.

“I’m no coaching genius, but right now bringing Sarah off the bench looks like the smartest move of my career,” Collen said. “We need more pieces. We are not going to ride Keira Peak and Sarah Watkins to the NCAA Tournament. We have to have some other people step up.”

That includes Calli Berna, Collen said, even as he called the sophomore from Fayetteville “the best assist/turnover [40/16] point guard in the SEC.”

“She needs to score more,” Collen said. “She needs to believe she can be the second or third scoring option.”

Collen said his team stepped up against Oklahoma, just not quite enough at the start and finish to win.

“Kansas pressures the ball real hard,” Collen said. “That’s what Oklahoma did to us. That’s the way teams in the SEC play defense. So it will be a big test.”

Sports, Pages 14 on 12/05/2012