FAYETTEVILLE – Taylah Thomas made losing two of its tallest players proved not even a small problem for the nationally No. 22 Arkansas Razorbacks women’s basketball team. With a career record 21 rebounds, one shy of Shelly Wallace’s 1988 school record 22 in 1988 augmenting her 10 points, 6-1 junior forward Thomas more than made up the rebounding slack in the absence of injured starting 6-1 center Kiara Williams (foot) and injured 6-3 freshman forward Destinee Oberg (wrist) leading Arkansas’ 82-52 season-opening victory over the University of New Orleans Privateers Friday morning before an Elementary School Day crowd of 6,801 at Walton Arena.
Thomas cleaned the boards while guards Chelsea Dungee, Amber Ramirez, Makayla Daniels and Conway’s Alexis Tolefree combined for 56 points. Dungee scored 22 and Ramirez 12. Tolefree, with three threes for the game and a first-quarter buzzer beating fast breaking fast-break lauyp, and Daniels scored 11 each.
Thomas bore the boards’ burden insisting she didn’t think it was a burden to bear.“I just felt I had to step up to the plate and carry the talls,” Thomas, averaging 5.0 rebounds last season, said. “I didn’t think it was a burden. It’s just my role. He (Neighbors) told me to get all the rebounds I could get.”Neighbors said he put Thomas back in after a respite for her 20th rebounding hoping she could set the record.“I will always do that on rebounds, assists and steals to bring a kid back to set a record though I won’t do that in scoring,” Neighbors said of putting Thomas back in late with the game settled since Arkansas’ 14-1 first-quarter run established a 15-2 lead. “But when you’ve worked your tail off and you’re close to something that nobody in the history of the school has ever done you give it a shot. That kid has earned it. A lot of schools overlooked her and we were absolutely lucky she played (in Frederick, Maryland) for a former Lady Razorback (Kit Kyle Martin) who called us when we (Neighbors) got the job. She came back this summer in the best shape of anybody. For her to do that was pretty cool.”Way before she neared the record, Neighbors said he urged Thomas to get every rebound she could get with Williams and Oberg joining injured senior guard Jailyn Mason (foot) on the bench in street clothes.“Sure we did, and not foul,” Neighbors said. “Taylah’s been a little foul prone in the past and I told her, ‘We need her to play.’ She only had two fouls, and on one foul and pointed to her head when she had that. Their strength is inside so for her to do that she had the game of her career.”
Though never leading by less than 10 after overcoming UNO’s lone 2-1 lead with a 14-1 run to lead 40-26 and “really finding our rhythm in the third quarter” leading 57-29 going into the game’s final 10 minutes, Neighbors gave the UA marketing department and support staff an A-plus orchestrating the busloads of elementary schools students gut only overall graded his team’s performance a “B minus for us maybe even a C.”The third-coach was pleased to see his team agree.“The thing I like best is in the past after a 30-point win we would’ve bee high-fiving,” Greenwood native Neighbors said. “But I heard our kids saying ‘Yeah, but. Yeah, but we turned it over too many times. Yeah but we were a little sloppy and miss shots we normally hit.’ So I’m loving the ‘Yeah but’ fact that’s where we’re at, that they realize they have more work to do. But anytime you beat that’s returning four starters you’re happy with it.” Arkansas, still without its injured three, takes its 1-0 record into Monday night’s 7 o’clock game against McNeese State at Walton Arena.UNO, losing 83-49 last Tuesday at LSU, fell Friday to 0-2.
Photos curtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3 Sports Action