UA women beginning to draw attention

By: Nate Allen
Published: Saturday, December 7, 2013
Arkansas coach Tom Collen watches his team during the first half of a Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013 game against Middle Tennessee at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas coach Tom Collen watches his team during the first half of a Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013 game against Middle Tennessee at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE - Their Lady ’Backs marketing identity long vanished in a consolidation of administrative power, the University of Arkansas women’s basketball team has toiled through an 8-0 start as anonymous as their name or lack thereof.

The variously worded references for Razorbacks women’s basketball since Athletic Director Jeff Long removed Lady ’Backs from the Arkansas vocabulary while combining the men’s and women’s athletic departments have made for forgettably ponderous attempts to distinguish Coach Tom Collen’s women’s team from Coach Mike Anderson’s men’s teams.

Lopsided victories over forgettables opponents like Furman and Binghamton and over once renowned but now struggling Missouri State and Oral Roberts didn’t much enhance the women’s national reputation.

A 66-51 victory over Middle Tennessee State - a Conference USA team that has defeated Miami and Mississippi State and had contested losses to SEC powers Tennessee and Kentucky - highlighted Arkansas’ 8-0 start.

Unfortunately, Middle Tennessee doesn’t lodge in basketball’s center of attention.

Beat traditionally strong Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., and folks take notice.

Which is what Arkansas did this week, defeating Kansas 64-53 while improving to 9-0.

They will strut into Walton Arena tonight to face Northwestern (La.) State having maximized their early potential for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid come March.

Northwestern State, Tulsa, Tennessee Tech and Mississippi Valley remain on the nonconference scheduled at Walton Arena before South Carolina - one of six SEC teams currently in the Top 25 - opens Arkansas’ SEC season Jan. 2.

“We don’t have a lot of great RPI games for our nonconference schedule,” Collen said. “So when we play the teams like Kansas and like Middle Tennessee, we have to get those wins. If we could find a way to get into the SEC schedule with one loss or no losses, I think that boosts our opportunity.”

That would boost their NCAA Tournament opportunities, but only a successful SEC campaign secures it.

“I think we all know that the make or break season for us will still be in the SEC,” Collen said.

Collen has enjoyed watching juniors Calli Berna and Jhasmin Bowen and senior Keira Peak - role players on his 24-9 team of two seasons ago that went two games deep into the NCAA Tournament - leading freshman flashes Jessica Jackson, McKenzie Adams and Kelsey Brooks.

Jackson, a rookie post player from Jacksonville and Collen’s most touted signee in his seven Arkansas seasons, has fearlessly matched her hype, including at Kansas.

“Jess Jackson rolled in a crucial three late in the game to take the lead from three to six,” Collen said. “She had the courage to step up and take a pretty big shot for a freshman.”

The emergence of the freshmen and veterans Bowen and Peak continues to allow Berna to be an incredible distributor (63 assists vs. 18 turnovers in 269 minutes) more than a scorer (8.6 average).

“Calli doesn’t need to do it all herself because she is really the type of player that facilitates other players,” Collen said. “That’s her best role. She realizes how talented they are, and is really starting to believe in them and wanting to lead them.

“That’s really, really crucial.”

Sports, Pages 20 on 12/07/2013