Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Monk turning in memorable senior season with multiple game winners
Arkansas guard Malica Monk (3) drives past Nebraska guard Sam Haiby Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018, during the first half of play in Bud Walton Arena.
FAYETTEVILLE When the game is on the line, Arkansas senior Malica Monk is at her best.
Monk has hit three game-winning shots in the closing seconds this season, helping the Razorbacks to a 14-5 overall and 3-2 SEC record ahead of their home matchup with Alabama (10-9, 2-4) on Thursday night.
Monk's latest dagger came at Tennessee on Monday. She crossed over a Tennessee defender to create separation and hit about a 12-foot jumper with 3.6 seconds remaining to give Arkansas an 80-79 win - its first road win over the Volunteers since 2012 and only the second for the Razorbacks in 16 games at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"I'm not going to lie to you, I was pretty scared," Monk said following the game. "But my teammates had confidence in me....To know they had my back, that gave me an extra boost, so that was really amazing."
Tennessee took a 79-78 lead on two free throws by Evina Westbrook with 10.2 seconds remaining. Westbrook was fouled by Monk on a shot attempt.
After the free throws, Arkansas had a timeout remaining but opted not to use it. The Razorbacks already had gone over an end-of-game situation, with assistant coach Todd Schaefer telling Monk to take the ball straight to the basket.
"That's exactly what I did, I followed his orders," Monk said. "Luckily we came out on top."
Tennessee lost its fifth consecutive game, but the win was still significant for Arkansas given its historical struggles against the one-time powerhouse. It was also a notable moment for Monk, who scored a career-high 25 points but committed a turnover with the Razorbacks looking to tie or take the lead in the closing seconds of a game against the Lady Vols last season in Fayetteville, a 90-85 Tennessee win.
She scored a season-high 23 points against the Lady Vols on Monday.
"I don't think she thought about it," Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors said, "but just the number of times she's had to have seen that thing replayed, it's got to feel good to, as a senior, have that happen, and then to do it on the road.
"I know she felt responsible last year. It's always that last play that everybody magnifies."
Monk has had several late-game plays magnified this year. In the past two months, the North Little Rock native has made three game winners - all on the road.
Monk's layup with 4.7 seconds remaining completed a 15-point comeback in the Razorbacks' 69-68 win over Wisconsin on Nov. 25 during an event in Nashville, Tenn.
On Dec. 20 she made a layup with eight seconds remaining to give Arkansas the go-ahead points in a 61-59 win at Tulsa.
Monday's shot was the fourth game winner in Monk's career and second in an SEC game. She followed a miss with a layup at the buzzer to beat Vanderbilt 57-56 at Bud Walton Arena as a freshman three years ago.
"She's got a lot of grittiness to her," Neighbors said.
Arkansas works on end-of-game situations in practice and had gone through a last-second shot simulation prior to making the trip to Tennessee.
"We knew that was a possibility and we executed," said redshirt sophomore Chelsea Dungee, who scored 19 points. "We work on those things every day. Doing it in a game is no different."
Arkansas has won four games with late baskets this season. In addition to Monk's three game winners, Alexis Tolefree hit a shot as time expired to give the Razorbacks a 66-65 win at Texas-Arlington on Nov. 14, which Neighbors said was his first time on the winning side of a true buzzer beater.
Winning close games was one of Neighbors' keys to success in the preseason when he pointed out the Razorbacks were winless in games that came down to the wire last January and February.
"We had five one-possession games in the last two minutes, of which we went 0-5," Neighbors said in July, prior to an exhibition trip to Italy. "You've got to learn to win one of them."
His team finally won the close game in an unconventional way that he believes has translated onto the court.
During a Sunday night practice in October, the Arkansas women defeated their male practice players 109-108. Dungee hit a go-ahead jumper in the closing seconds of the scrimmage, then the women made a defensive stop and rebound on the other end to win.
"It was the first time we were able to do it, whether it was against (the men) or in a real game," Neighbors said. "Now it's happened four times on the last possession, where we either need a stop or a score or both, and we've been able to do it.
"I think it's one of those things that you have to experience it. I don't think you can talk about it. You can try it in practice and you can try to simulate it in drills, but it doesn't have that same impact as the buzzer going off and that the genuine joy of jumping up off the bench."
This season, Arkansas is 5-1 in games that are within one possession in the final two minutes. The lone loss was 88-85 at home to Arizona State, which is ranked No. 16 in this week's Associated Press Top 25 poll.
"It can flip around real easy and we realize that," Neighbors said. "I think that's what separates you from being talked about and being about.
"If we can get a game close, I like our chances down the stretch."
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