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Tolefree, Dungee lead Arkansas to win over Auburn
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.
GREENVILLE, S.C. — The University of Arkansas started slowly, but once the shots started falling, the Razorbacks were well on their way Thursday in the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament on Thursday.
Senior Alexis Tolefree scored 20 of her game-high 30 points in the first half as the Razorbacks opened tournament play with a 90-68 victory over the Tigers at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
No. 25 Arkansas made 17 three-pointers on 42 attempts, both SEC Tournament records, and connected on 59% of its second-half shots to pull away.
The victory sets up a rematch between Arkansas and former coach Gary Blair about 1:30 p.m. Central today. The Razorbacks knocked off A&M in the semifinals of the tournament last season.
Auburn (11-18) grabbed an 8-0 lead to open the game, and the Razorbacks (23-7) missed their first five shots. Arkansas Coach Mike Neighbors called a timeout.
Tolefree, Taylah Thomas and Makayla Daniels subbed out. The timeout was necessary, Neighbors said, but no cause for alarm.
“There was no panic through the first substitution and media timeout,” Neighbors said. “We got it back together. I thought from that first six minutes on was our most complete game of the year against a quality team.”
After re-entering the game, Tolefree drained a three-pointer from the right corner for the Razorbacks’ first points. She finished with nine of the Razorbacks’ 11 points in the first quarter on 3-of-7 shooting, but Auburn led 14-11 entering the second quarter.
“In the first timeout, he told us to come out and play loose and have fun with it,” Tolefree said. “I think that’s what we did. We just came out and started having fun, not really worried about like the outcome of our shots.”
With 8:17 left in the second quarter, Chelsea Dungee drained a three with the shot clock winding down to give Arkansas its first lead at 17-16.
Rokia Doumbia, who had four first-half assists, kicked out to Tolefree for a three-pointer from the left corner to cap a 7-0 Arkansas run over 1:14 in the second quarter that gave the Hogs a 24-21 lead with 5:48 left in the period, and Arkansas never trailed again. Auburn’s half-court trap and length were neutralized by the Razorbacks’ quicker guards, who moved the ball around with ease after the slow start.
“They wanted that matchup,” Neighbors said. “This is a matchup they love to play. We called one set play today, and it didn’t work. It’s overrated. You get them in the right spots, then trust them to go play.”
The Razorbacks outscored Auburn 26-10 in the second quarter for a 37-24 halftime lead.
Dungee started slow but finished with 23 points on 5-of-8 three-point shooting, and the Razorbacks got 24 fast-break points.
Auburn’s Unique Thompson finished with 12 points and 15 rebounds for her SEC-best 23rd double-double, but she had just two first-half points.
“It was really hard to gamble off of anyone,” Auburn Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. “You’ve just got to hope and pray that they don’t knock shots down. But that’s not going to last very long.”
The convincing victory brought to mind Arkansas’ run in last year’s conference tournament, which also was held in Greenville. Neighbors jokingly said he would push for more games to be played there.
“Tournament time, we have a different mentality,” Dungee said. “We’re out to be back in the championship like we were last year. We stick together. We know what it takes. We’ve been here before. We know what it takes to get there again.”
Last season, the Razorbacks upset South Carolina in the quarterfinals and defeated the Aggies 58-51 in the semifinals before falling to Mississippi State 101-70 in the championship game, their fourth game in as many days. Texas A&M beat Arkansas 84-77 on Jan. 2.
“He [Blair] knows what we’re going to do,” said Neighbors, a former assistant under Blair at Arkansas. “They will make our life hard.
“We’ll have to score around the basket a little bit. We’ll probably have to set some ball screens. [Our players] will be more guarded, I guarantee you. It will be a different way to get open.”
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