Arkansas women's basketball hosts Auburn, nearing 'must-win' territory for both teams

Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors is shown during a game against Alabama on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in Fayetteville. (Andy Shupe/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — Two teams in similar situations will meet Sunday in Bud Walton Arena at 5 p.m.

It may be too early to consider the Auburn game a “must-win” for the Arkansas women’s basketball team, but without a victory, the Razorbacks (16-7, 4-4 SEC) will have little margin for error in their quest to make the NCAA Tournament. 

The Razorbacks and Tigers are jockeying for NCAA Tournament bubble positioning and within a crowded SEC middle of the pack. In its most recent “Bracketology” publication, ESPN projects Auburn to be among the “last four in” the 68-team field, while Arkansas is among the “next four out.”

Auburn (14-7, 3-5) bolstered its resume with a home victory Jan. 14 over reigning national champion LSU and enters Sunday 10th in the SEC standings. Arkansas is in a three-way tie with Alabama and Vanderbilt for sixth place in the 14-team league.

The Tigers rank No. 60 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool rankings and the Razorbacks are No. 64.

Arkansas would have helped its case Thursday night had it claimed a season sweep of Alabama, but the Crimson Tide used a 23-6 second quarter to defeat the Razorbacks 86-70 in Fayetteville.

Seventh-year Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors was disappointed with the Razorbacks’ effort and said his team should be playing harder in February, the month when bubble teams seek to make their strongest push toward an at-large bid to the Big Dance.

Neighbors said he could see it coming from what he described as two days of poor practices before playing Alabama.

“I told the team, more often than not, I come in [the news conference room] and take a lot of it,” Neighbors said of taking responsibility after losses. “And I still will take all the blame because I did see it coming, and we couldn't get anything done about it. But I don't profess to know what goes on in every 18-to-22-year-old kid's mind. Whatever it is, we’ve got to get it fixed before [practices preparing for Auburn].

“I told them to show up and fight like the third lion at Noah's Ark and it's raining. Again, the sky is not falling, but that effort was poor. It's disappointing.”

Third-year Auburn coach Johnnie Harris has a long history with both Neighbors and the state of Arkansas. Harris, who was born in Pine Bluff, played at Arkansas-Pine Bluff (1984-86) and Arkansas Baptist (1987-89).

She began her coaching career as an assistant at Arkansas-Little Rock from 1998-01 and had a two-year stint at Arkansas-Fort Smith before joining former Arkansas coach Susie Gardner’s staff as an assistant for the Razorbacks from 2004-07.

She is also part of the coaching tree of legendary former Arkansas coach Gary Blair. Harris was an assistant at Texas A&M under Blair from 2007-12, was associate head coach at Mississippi State under Blair-mentee Vic Schaefer from 2012-20 and at Texas in 2020-21, before landing the head coaching job at Auburn.

Harris and Neighbors had a one-year overlap in 2006-07, when he was also an assistant on Gardner’s staff at Arkansas. 

“I would sit in her office and watch her recruit, and just overhear her talking on the phone to recruits,” Neighbors said of what he learned from Harris. “She spent a lot of time with Coach Blair and there's kind of a fraternity of people that have their Blair-isms.

“We’ve shared in those moments. She knows my kids and we share a love of guitars. She's taken the guitar up and has become quite a good player. We talked about a lot of things that aren't basketball related, but also too, she's one that she will call about scheduling. She knows it's something I cover.

“From talking in meetings, she's always had good advice…. A lot of times when you have a relationship as assistant coaches, it kind of goes away when you both get to be head coaches, because you're recruiting the same kids. That [good relationship] hasn't changed with Johnnie.”

Auburn will look to respond from a 76-54 loss Thursday to top-ranked South Carolina. The Tigers are 0-3 in road SEC games.

“They’re going to be a different team because they are more perimeter-oriented,” Harris said of switching gears from South Carolina to Arkansas. “They like to shoot the three and they like to get layups. We’re going to have to make them shoot contested jumpers.”

Auburn is led by senior guard Honesty Scott-Grayson, who ranks seventh in the SEC averaging 17 points per game. It will be a return to Arkansas for Tigers center Savannah Scott, who starred at Conway and has been awarded SEC freshman of the week once this season.

Sunday’s game will be televised by SEC Network.