Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
Hogs welcome Memphis date
Arkansas point guard Calli Berna tries to get the ball past Texas A&M defender Jordan Jones during a game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas Coach Tom Collen said he wouldn’t have had a problem if the WNIT had matched the Razorbacks with UALR. In fact, he expected the teams could be close in the 64-team bracket because the NIT often likes to set up regional games.
“We anticipated that we might be able to play UALR maybe in the second round if that was a possibility, and we would have welcomed that opportunity if that’s what they decided to do,” Collen said Tuesday. “We welcome whatever opportunity they give us, and Memphis being a good regional rivalry, Ithink that’s a good game for us as well.”
Arkansas (19-12) will play Memphis (17-14) at 7 p.m. Thursday in Walton Arena while UALR will play at Pacific on Friday night. Arkansas and UALR are on opposite sides of the bracket and could meet only if both teams reach the WNIT title game.
The Razorbacks’ and Trojans’ only meeting in women’s basketball came 35 seasons ago, when Arkansas won 74-54 in Little Rock on Dec. 9, 1977.
“Joe Foley and I are good friends,” Collen said of UALR’s coach. “We talk all the time, but it’s obvious right now the philosophy that Arkansas has about playing instate schools.”
That philosophy is not to schedule in-state schools in any sport. The last time Arkansas’ women’s team played an in-state school was in a 2005 WNIT second-round game, when Arkansas State beat the Razorbacks 98-84 in Jonesboro on March 21- eight years to the day of Thursday night’s game.
Collen, in his sixth season at Arkansas, has taken the Razorbacks to three consecutive postseason appearances with the WNIT in 2011 and the NCAA Tournament last year. He also took Arkansas to the WNIT in 2009.
“We’re excited to be in the NIT,” Collen said. “I think at this time of the year everybody would probably prefer to be in the NCAA, but the NIT is a great tournament. It’s very well-run.
“The prospect of playing against Memphis is a great opportunity. They’re a good regional rivalry. I think it’s a name that our fans recognize … and they’re a good basketball team.”
Memphis went 3-4 in December when junior point guard Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir was sidelined by a broken right wrist. She returned for the Tigers’ 72-69 victory overMissouri and is averaging 10.6 points and 3.3 rebounds.
Senior forward Nicole Dickson is averaging team highs of 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds for Memphis, which finished 8-8 in Conference USA and is playing in the WNIT for the third consecutive year.
“They’re healthy now and they’re ready to go,” Collen said. “They’re extremely athletic. They’re going to come here and probably try and turn us over. They want to get up and down the floor, so this should be a great game for our fans, and hopefully we’ll get a good crowd here.”
Arkansas senior forward Sarah Watkins from Germantown, Tenn., is familiar with some of Memphis’ players.
“They’re going to be athletic, so it’s going to be a key point to slow them down in transition,” Watkins said. “But that’s kind of been our motto all year, not to let [opponents] get a lot of transition points and lock up on defense and really keep the score low.”
Arkansas lost to Florida 64-59 in the SEC Tournament on March 7, but Collen scheduled a game against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville anticipating a postseason bid and the Razorbacks beat the Cougars63-41 last Thursday night.
“I think it would have been a lot worse if we hadn’t played that game, just practicing for two weeks straight,” Watkins said. “But you throw that game in there and then give us a couple of days off for rest, it hasn’t been too bad.”
Arkansas has a 9-3 series lead against Memphis and has beaten the Tigers eight consecutive times, but the teams haven’t met since the 2008-2009 season when the Razorbacks won 76-69 in Memphis.
Collen said he’s attempted to schedule other games against Memphis without success.
“Year to year, I think coaches are notorious for looking at rosters and trying to decide when they want to start a series or not,” Collen said. “When I first got here, we were ending a Memphis series and we tried to extend it, but at that point in time they decided they didn’t want to play, so we just let it go.”
The Arkansas-Memphis winner will advance to play the Tulane-Sam Houston State winner.
“I’ve got to be honest with you, we drew a tough bracket,” Collen said. “I think Memphis is a really difficult first-round game. We were not anticipating them. I think we were anticipating maybe someone from the Southland or the Sun Belt Conference.”
Sports, Pages 19 on 03/20/2013