Arkansas women's basketball carrying 'marathon' mentality into game at Florida

Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors talks to his team, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, during the first half of an NCAA women's college basketball game in Fayetteville. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

FAYETTEVILLE — With his team off to its best nine-game start to Southeastern Conference play since 2019-20, seventh-year Arkansas women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors wants the Razorbacks to understand the season is a marathon.

But with seven games remaining for Arkansas (17-7, 5-4 SEC) in the regular season, the finish line is drawing closer in sight, and the importance of each game has increased.

The Razorbacks, on the NCAA Tournament bubble, will seek consecutive victories and improve their standing in the race Thursday when they play Florida (11-9, 2-6) at 5 p.m. in Gainesville, Fla.

Arkansas, tied with Alabama for sixth place in the SEC, helped its postseason cause Sunday with a down-to-the-wire 74-72 victory over Auburn, which is also in bubble territory. While Neighbors has been pleased with the Razorbacks’ ability to bounce back from losses — Arkansas has not lost consecutive games — he is aware the team would benefit from going on a winning streak.

“I do think that we understand playing in the SEC,” Neighbors said of his team being able to understand the bigger picture. “We have [fifth-year guard] Makayla Daniels telling all the kids that it’s a marathon, and you must treat it like it is. I don’t worry about them with that aspect.

“They have learned to compartmentalize things well and take each game, literally coach speak, one game at a time, and that is what we need to survive in this league.”

The Razorbacks have not finished better than eighth in the league since 2020-21, when they tied for fifth. That season Arkansas started 2-5 in SEC play but ended the regular season ranked 15th nationally with a 19-7 overall and 9-6 conference record.

Historically, teams with at least an 8-8 SEC record have earned at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament, but anything less has resulted in sweating out Selection Sunday.

That was the case for Arkansas the past two seasons, when its 7-9 record in 2021-22 was enough for a 10-seed, but the same record in 2022-23 resulted in no invite.

Florida poses a sneaky threat. The Gators are ranked No. 59 in the NET rankings, two spots higher than Arkansas at No. 61.

Florida senior guard Leilani Correa, who began her career at St. John’s, has been the SEC’s most prolific scorer in league play. Correa has averaged 24.1 points per SEC game and drew comparisons to former Arkansas standout Chelsea Dungee from Neighbors.

“Size, speed, confidence and ability to score in multiple different ways,” Neighbors said of Correa. “You can’t keep her from getting shots. She’s going to be able to create shots no matter what you decide to do. You just need to really affect the quality of shots that she takes. You can’t pinpoint one action of the floor or one motion they use to get her there. I think the most important thing is that she is playing loose and free.

“She reminded me of watching Dungee, just some of the ways that she gets to the foul line....You can think you are in good defensive position but still draws fouls, can shoot the three and can drive it.”

While the Razorbacks will look to continue riding the momentum of an important win over Auburn, they will hope Florida stays low from a 106-66 loss at No. 13 LSU on Sunday.

The Gators’ loss to the Tigers closely resembled the 99-68 defeat Arkansas experienced at LSU on Jan. 21.  

When the Razorbacks played the Tigers, they trailed 55-28 at halftime. LSU led Florida 54-28 at halftime.

LSU dominated the boards in both games, with a plus-28 advantage over Arkansas and plus-25 over Florida. The fashion of those losses could be an indicator of how well LSU matched up against two, similar guard-heavy teams.

It could also be the foreshadowing of good matchups position-by-position when the Razorbacks and Gators meet.

“There isn’t a tremendous size advantage one way or the other,” Neighbors said. “There isn’t a tremendous speed advantage, either. We both are very transition oriented, and we play through our guards and our big kids complement that very well. I do think that Florida has a depth advantage…. I like the personnel matchup. Our styles of play always produce a fun game, so I wouldn’t anticipate anything less than that.”

The Razorbacks will likely be without sophomore guard Carly Keats, who broke her nose during the first quarter of a Jan. 28 win at Missouri and underwent surgery last week. Neighbors said Keats will return to practice soon and will adjust to potentially playing with a protective mask.

Arkansas freshman guard Taliah Scott returned last week after missing six consecutive games due to a back injury. Scott, who leads the SEC with 22.2 points per game, scored a game-high 33 points during the victory over Auburn.

Redshirt-sophomore guard Saylor Poffenbarger has played through shin splints for much of the season and leads the SEC with 12.1 rebounds per game. Poffenbarger’s 9.9 defensive rebounds per game rank second nationally.

It will be the Razorbacks’ sixth game in the state of Florida this season. They played two games at the Fort Myers Tip-Off (Nov. 24-25), at Florida State in the ACC-SEC Challenge (Nov. 30) and two games at the West Palm Beach Classic (Dec. 20-21). Arkansas was 4-1 in those games.

Thursday’s game will be televised by SEC Network-Plus.