Paul Boyd is a sports reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was voted Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2018.
Mike Neighbors evokes Erwin Center memories
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors is shown during a game against Ole Miss on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, in Fayetteville.
University of Arkansas women’s basketball Coach Mike Neighbors gave his No. 15 Razorbacks a little history lesson before practice Saturday in the Frank Erwin Center.
He showed them a video of Arkansas guard U.S. Reed’s historic half-court shot to beat Louisville at the buzzer in the second round of the 1981 NCAA Men’s Tournament. The significance?
It occurred on the same Erwin Center floor in Austin, Texas, where his Razorbacks, a No. 4 seed, will take on No. 13 seed Wright State (18-7) today at 1 p.m. Central in the Alamo Region. It will be the 12th NCAA Tournament appearance for Arkansas (19-8) and its first since 2015.
Neighbors even did a demonstration and made the shot.
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“I tried to recreate the path and his form,” said Neighbors, a longtime Razorbacks fan and Greenwood native. “Hard to do.”
He’s hoping no late-game heroics are necessary, but has plenty of respect for the Raiders, who won the Horizon League regular-season and tournament championships.
Neighbors knows Wright State Coach Katrina Merriweather and associate head coach Tennille Adams, a former Arkansas player who played for the Razorbacks’ Final Four team in 1998 and their 1999 WNIT championship team.
“The main thing is I know Katrina Merriweather, I’ve known her since I got into college coaching, I know how hard her teams play,” Neighbors said.”Y’all all know Tennille Adams, how rugged, tough-minded, defensive-oriented, do-whatever-it-took-for-the-team-to-win mentality she had. They carry that over.
“We’ll have to work really hard to establish a fast pace because they will do a lot of things to establish the pace they want to play at. It’s definitely not the 13 seed I would have signed up for, but it’s the one we’ve got.”
Wright State has junior guard Angel Baker, who averages 18.1 points per game. She was part of the last Wright State team to make the tournament two years ago and the only Raider who averages in double figures. But they also have some size in 6-4 senior Tyler Frierson and 6-3 junior Jada Wright.
Neighbors likened the 5-8 Baker to several guards in the SEC.
“She’s got some Khayla Pointer in her,” Neighbors said. “She’s got a little bit of Jordan Lewis in her. She’s got a little Que Morrison, Gabby Connally, Jordan Nixon — who I hope hits buzzer beater after buzzer beater against somebody else other than us.
“We hope that we will be able to use that experience against those SEC opponents to be sure that we make her life tough.”
Merriweather, who is in her fifth season leading Wright State, said the Raiders and Razorbacks have some similarities, which made game preparations easier.
“I think we have to play fast because that’s how we play,” Merriweather said. “I don’t know that we can change how we play. I do think we have to be smart in regard to the tempo of the game and know when to push and when to pull it out.”
Redshirt senior Chelsea Dungee, a third-team Associated Press All-America selection, said it’s been a goal to get Arkansas back to the NCAA Tournament.
“To see it right in front of our eyes, I think we have a big opportunity, and I think we’re going to make the most of it,” Dungee said.
The high-scoring guard from Sapulpa, Okla., was the first Razorback to earn All-America honors since Shameka Christon in 2004.
Merriweather said her team has faced some great scorers this season, but Dungee presents some unique challenges.
“What she has is the ability to get to the rim, get fouled and get to the free-throw line,” said Merriweather, who also played in the tournament for Cincinnati in 1999. “We have not seen that. So we’re working on close-outs and we’re emulating it the best we can. That’s tough, but I think they understand she’s going to score. We’re not shutting her out. She’s got 2,000 career points.
“What we have to do is make it work for every shot she gets and make sure they get one shot, us rebound the ball and push it in transition.”
Dungee, who led the SEC averaging 22.2 points per game, is tied for first in the country in made free throws with 163 and third in free throws attempted with 206. The Razorbacks also rank second in the country in those two categories, trailing only Troy. Arkansas is tied for third nationally in three-pointers made (260) and averages 9.6 per game — good enough for eighth in the nation.
Arkansas does have players with postseason experience. Dungee and graduate transfer Destiny Slocum have both played in the tournament for other schools before coming to Fayetteville and that could be helpful, Neighbors said.
Not to mention he guided Washington to the Final Four in 2016.
“It’ll be worth a point or two, maybe more,” Neighbors said. “Settling us down or keeping us grounded if we happened to get off to a great start. To soak it in, that’s the one thing I hope I’m able to bring them. Soak everything in that we get an opportunity to do.”
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