Arkansas hopes to make Bud Walton Arena magic vs. No. 2 UCLA

UCLA guard Kiki Rice (left) and Arkansas guard Makayla Daniels (right) are shown during NCAA women's basketball games. (AP Photos by Chase Stevens and Michael Woods)

FAYETTEVILLE — You don’t have to look back too far to see that seventh-year Arkansas women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors has experience taking down juggernauts.

On their home court during the 2020-21 season, the Razorbacks upended No. 3 UConn and No. 4 Baylor. 

The victories tripled Arkansas’ all-time wins against top-five teams. Neighbors joined legendary coach Gary Blair as the second coach to lead the Razorbacks to such a win.

Arkansas (7-1) will look to create another memorable upset Sunday at 2 p.m., when it faces No. 2 UCLA in Bud Walton Arena.

“We've had some success when highly ranked teams have come into Bud when we get good crowds for them going back to Baylor and UConn,” Neighbors said. “But [UCLA is a] really good team. I think it's [Coach Cori Close’s] best team.

“If you follow kind of the national landscape, most people have UCLA as a Final Four contender or lock, depending on who you look at.”

The Bruins (6-0) defeated then-No. 6 UConn 78-67 last Friday in the Cayman Islands Classic.

“They took it to UConn down there in the Cayman Islands,” Neighbors said. “If South Carolina hadn't played a great schedule preseason, I think UCLA would be coming in here No. 1. But South Carolina has gone out and earned it, for sure.”

The Bruins are ripe with talent. All five starters are double-digit scorers and each were rated top-25 prospects in their class out of high school by ESPN.

In the class of 2022, Lauren Betts was the No.  1 recruit, Kiki Rice was No. 2, Gabriela Jaquez was No. 19 and Londynn Jones was No. 22. Graduate guard Charisma Osborne, who is the program’s fourth-highest scorer and a projected high 2024 WNBA Draft pick, was rated the No. 22 player in the class of 2019.

A couple offseason decisions led to the barrage of talent on the Bruins’ roster.

Osborne chose to return for a fifth season despite the fact she would have likely been selected in the first round of the 2023 WNBA Draft. Betts, a 6-7 center, transferred from Stanford, where she averaged just 9.6 minutes as a freshman.

Gabriela Jaquez (16.2 points per game), Betts (15.5), Osborne (15.2), Londynn Jones (13.7) and Rice (13.5) form a dynamic starting lineup. Betts leads the nation with a field goal percentage of 78% this season.

“I know that I sound like a broken record because this is about the fifth [press conference] I've mentioned this,” Neighbors said. “But we scheduled that game with UCLA as a home-and-home about a year ago when Charisma Osborne was going to be a top-five pick in the WNBA Draft. And at that point in time, [Lauren] Betts played for Stanford.

“Now Osborne comes back — it gives them a fifth-year kid who's still going to be a top pick in the WNBA [and a] potential All-American — and Betts transfers from Stanford, which is rare. Most kids don't ever leave Stanford, but she's at UCLA.”

The Razorbacks aren’t deprived of talent, either. They are headlined by freshman star Taliah Scott, who is seventh in the nation averaging 23.3 points.

Saylor Poffenbarger set the program single-game rebounding record with 23 against Florida State and is in her second year after transferring from UConn. Maryam Dauda, a 6-4 forward from Bentonville, was the No. 13 player in the class of 2021.

Guards Makayla Daniels and Samara Spencer are the SEC’s No. 3 and 9 active scoring leaders, respectively.

Arkansas is fresh off a road victory over No. 15 Florida State in the ACC-SEC Challenge. It came five days after a poor start against Marquette that paved way for a 16-point loss, the team’s first of the season.

Neighbors said there was “a little pissed off-edness” within his team after the loss and that it “embarrassed them a little bit.” He credited the loss for leading to good preparation for the Florida State game.

The Razorbacks responded with a decisive victory over the Seminoles. They now look to keep momentum rolling.

“I think we'll play with more confidence,” Neighbors said. “I can't tell you we'll play better than that. I'm not sure we can play better than that yet. But I have a lot of confidence that we can play that hard again.”

It will be the second meeting between Arkansas and UCLA.

The Razorbacks defeated the Bruins 90-80 in overtime during the first round of the 1990 NCAA Tournament in Fayetteville. Arkansas eventually made the Elite Eight that season under John Sutherland.

Sunday's game will be televised on SEC Network+.