Mindset evolves for UA women

By: Paul Boyd
Published: Wednesday, March 4, 2020
Arkansas' Alexis Tolefree (2) goes up for a shot during the Razorbacks' game against Arkansas-Little Rock on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock.
Photo by Jeff Gammons
Arkansas' Alexis Tolefree (2) goes up for a shot during the Razorbacks' game against Arkansas-Little Rock on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock.

FAYETTEVILLE — University of Arkansas women’s basketball Coach Mike Neighbors talked about playing with urgency a year ago, and his Razorbacks responded with a run to the SEC Tournament finals.

Neighbors admitted to different feelings Tuesday after Arkansas achieved its highest finish ever in the SEC and heads to the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C., as a No. 5 seed in this year’s tournament.

“We know we’re in the NCAA Tournament,” said Neighbors, whose team climbed back into The Associated Press poll at No. 25 on Monday. “We didn’t know that last year. We were going down there with something to prove.

“I’m a little apprehensive. Do we go down there with that chip on our shoulder?”

The Razorbacks (22-7) won 10 SEC games for just the second time in school history and finished in a tie for third. ESPN’s Charlie Creme has the Razorbacks as a No. 8 seed in the Portland Regional, facing Florida Gulf Coast with the winner taking on Oregon, in his latest Bracketology.

But Neighbors said his team still has motivation.

“There’s something to play for,” he said. “I think we could play ourselves up a line or two in the NCAA Tournament. I don’t think this group is ever satisfied, and I don’t think they judge themselves based on their results.”

Arkansas will try to improve its stock beginning with a matchup against Auburn at 1 p.m. Central on Thursday. A victory would set up a battle with former Arkansas coach Gary Blair and Texas A&M on Friday.

The Razorbacks placed two players on All-SEC teams, which were released Tuesday. Senior guard Alexis Tolefree was named to the first team, while junior Chelsea Dungee made the second team for the second consecutive season.

The 5-8 Tolefree made a huge impact for Arkansas, especially in SEC play where she averaged a team-high 18.6 points per game and established herself as one of the top three-point shooters in the league. She’s averaging 16.3 ppg for the season and is shooting almost 42% from three-point range (83 of 199).

The Conway native said helping the Razorbacks return to prominence is important.

“It’s been a big deal to me to even play here,” said Tolefree, who is in her second season at Arkansas after transferring from Jones College in Ellisville, Miss. “It just means a lot to go out like this my senior year, making an NCAA appearance.

“Being from Conway, being an Arkansas kid, that’s a big deal to me. I haven’t seen an Arkansas team really win or really compete in the SEC or in the NCAA Tournament in a long time. And for me to be on the team that does it, that’s a big deal.”

Dungee, who earned preseason All-American honors, leads the team in scoring at 17.0 ppg. The 5-11 guard fueled last year’s run to the SEC finals, scoring an SEC-record 104 points in the tournament.

Neighbors likes the matchup with either Vanderbilt or Auburn. Arkansas dominated the Commodores 100-66 in Nashville, Tenn., and handled the Tigers 86-70 on the road during the regular season. But Vanderbilt upset No. 16 Kentucky on Sunday while Auburn lost at the buzzer to Tennessee.

“Both play a style that we kinda like to play, and they’ll both run with us a little,” Neighbors said.

Another shot at Texas A&M would provide a good litmus test for Arkansas since they squared off in the SEC opener for both teams Jan. 2, Neighbors said. The Aggies won 84-77 in Walton Arena.

“I do like the A&M potential rematch,” Neighbors said. “We played them really early in the SEC Conference. I think we’re better now than we were then. I’m sure coach Blair would say the same thing, but that’s the team we played longest ago. So I’d really like to see where we are at.”

Neighbors didn’t predict another big tournament run for the Razorbacks, but he didn’t discount it, either.

“And we all know what happens when you get down there and you get hot,” Neighbors said. “It becomes contagious and infectious, and it’s on auto-pilot. I don’t know if we can capture that two years in a row, but I can guarantee you we’re gonna try.”

At a glance

ARKANSAS VS. AUBURN

WHAT SEC Women's Basketball Tournament

WHERE Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, S.C.

WHEN Thursday, 1 p.m. Central

TV SEC Network

RADIO Razorback Sports Network

Southeastern Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament

At Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, S.C.

Wednesday’s Games

Game 1 No. 13 Auburn vs. No. 12 Vanderbilt 10 a.m.

Game 2 No. 14 Ole Miss vs. No. 11 Missouri, noon

Thursday’s Games

Game 3 No. 9 Georgia vs. No. 8 Alabama, 11 a.m.

Game 4 No. 5 Arkansas vs. Auburn, 1 p.m.

Game 5 No. 10 Florida vs. No. 7 LSU, 5 p.m.

Game 6 No. 6 Tennessee vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m.

Friday’s Games

Game 7 No. 1 South Carolina vs. Game 3 winner, 11 a.m.

Game 8 No. 4 Texas A&M vs. Game 4 winner, 1 p.m.

Game 9 No. 2 Mississippi State vs. Game 5 winner, 5 p.m.

Game 10 No. 3 Kentucky vs. Game 6 winner, 7 p.m.

Saturday’s Games

Game 11 Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 4 p.m.

Game 12 Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 6:30 p.m.

Sunday’s Game

Game 13 Game 11 winner vs. Game 12 winner, 1 p.m.

All-SEC Women’s Basketball

First Team

Alexis Tolefree, Arkansas

Unique Thompson, Auburn

Rhyne Howard, Kentucky

Aliyah Boston, South Carolina

Tyasha Harris, South Carolina

Rennia Davis, Tennessee

Chennedy Carter, Texas A&M

N’dea Jones, Texas A&M

Second Team

Chelsea Dungee, Arkansas

Jasmine Walker, Alabama

Ayana Mitchell, LSU

Khayla Pointer, LSU

Jessika Carter, Mississippi State

Jordan Danberry, Mississippi State

Rickea Jackson, Mississippi State

Mikiah Herbert-Harrigan, South Carolina

All-Freshman

Lavender Briggs, Florida

Rickea Jackson, Mississippi State

Aijha Blackwell, Missouri

Hayley Frank, Missouri

Aliyah Boston, South Carolina

Zia Cooke, South Carolina

Jordan Horston, Tennessee

Koi Love, Vanderbilt

All Defensive

Que Morrison, Georgia

Rhyne Howard, Kentucky

Faustine Aifuwa, LSU

Jordan Danberry, Mississippi State

Aliyah Boston, South Carolina

Jordyn Cambridge, Vanderbilt

Player of the Year Rhyne Howard, Kentucky

Freshman of the Year Aliyah Boston, South Carolina

Defensive Player of the Year Aliyah Boston, South Carolina

Sixth Woman of the Year Chastity Patterson, Kentucky

Scholar-Athlete of the Year Jordan Lewis, Alabama

Coach of the Year Dawn Staley, South Carolina

Discussion

Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.