UA women to play in WNIT

Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors congratulates player Samara Spencer (2) after an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri in the Southeastern Conference women's tournament in Greenville, S.C., Thursday, March 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

FAYETTEVILLE — For the first time in four seasons, the Arkansas women’s basketball team was not selected for the NCAA Tournament.

Arkansas (21-12) entered Selection Sunday on the bubble after dropping nine of its final 13 games. Its bubble burst when the team did not hear its named called.

The Razorbacks instead will compete in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. They earned an automatic bid as the SEC’s top finisher excluded from the NCAA Tournament.

The full 64-team WNIT field, along with dates and playing times, will be announced Monday.

While disappointed Arkansas did not earn an NCAA Tournament bid, head coach Mike Neighbors said his group knows it played itself into sweating things out.

The Razorbacks lost four one-possession games and dropped a contest against the SEC’s third-worst team in Vanderbilt. Arkansas also had late-season opportunities against fellow SEC bubble teams Georgia and Mississippi State — both of which made the field — but lost the matchups.

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“We can go back and look at games along the way that could have made a difference,” Neighbors said. “One-possession games along the way. We all know what those games are. We could have done things to not put ourselves in that situation.”

The sixth-year Arkansas coach said his team wants to use the WNIT to prove the selection committee should not have excluded the Razorbacks.

“Judging by the way they handled the information, the news, I was excited for practice tomorrow,” Neighbors said. “Because it was a, ‘Let's get after it. Let's go be that team that, you know, proves that maybe we should have been in.’ If you go and you lose your first- or your second-round [game], you don't really have much to talk about.

“You can't back it up if you don't go with that attitude.”

The Razorbacks were also one of the fringe teams left out of the field in 2019, and after winning two games in the WNIT, put together an impressive encore season. Arkansas’ 2019-20 team was destined for a high NCAA Tournament seed, but the event was canceled due to the covid-19 pandemic.

“Our kids were really excited to have the opportunity to play, and really the great opportunity to possibly host again and play in front of our fans in Bud Walton,” Neighbors said. “We all know we used it as a springboard [four] years ago to build a little bit of momentum that second year.

“We'll approach it that way.”

Entering the day, the team believed it stood a decent chance to make the NCAA Tournament due to owning the most NET top-100 wins (10) among teams on the bubble. The Razorbacks were also leaning on their tough schedule – No. 19 according to

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But those metrics were overshadowed by a rocky finish to the regular season.

“You hope that you're strong in one of the areas that the committee's going to put a lot of stock in,” Neighbors said. “And I thought it was really interesting, the very first question that the chair got was, ‘Why did Stanford get the No. 1 seed over Iowa?’ And the immediate response was they had 20 top-100 wins. So, obviously, top-100 hundred wins was the separator between the one and the two seed, which should have boded well for us.

“But, you know, you're always going to find something to be frustrated about.”

While the team was clearly disappointed with no invite, Neighbors said the group can’t hang its head and have a poor showing in the WNIT.

“I don't want us to look at the [W]NIT as a lesser tournament,” he said. “We'll stick together like we always do and know that we're playing into the postseason and be proud of that opportunity. And then we'll learn from our mistakes later on.

“But right now, we'll focus on whoever shows up on that bracket.”