FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas’ fast and furious second half once caught (61-61) but never could surpass Texas A&M’s 44-32 halftime lead.
So ultimately the nationally No. 11 Aggies of Hall of Fame coach and former Arkansas coach Gary Blair defeated the 20th-ranked Razorbacks of former Blair Arkansas staffer Mike Neighbors, 84-77 in the SEC women’s basketball opener for both teams Thursday night on SEC Network television at Walton Arena.
Arkansas scrapped to the bitter end. The game was not of reach until A&M’s Shambria Washington hit one of two free throws putting the Aggies up 81-77 with 21 seconds left and forcing Arkansas to foul after Amber Ramirez’s missed three.
“I said pregame we didn’t know a lot about our team,” Neighbors said. “We do now. Texas A&M is the team preseason I picked to win the league. Tonight showed we are a possession or two away from being in that same conversation.”
Arkansas, 12-2, 0-1 next plays Auburn in Sunday’s 1 p.m. SEC Network televised SEC game at Auburn, Ala.
Texas A&M, 13-1, 1-0 next hosts SEC rival Ole Miss at 6 p.m, Monday on the SEC Network in College Station, Texas.
The SEC Network got its money’s worth Thursday at Walton from two premier teams and their premier players
Texas A&M superstar guard Chennedy Carter played super both halves scoring the 13 first 20 minutes and and 15 the second 20 for a game-leading 28 points.
Blair needed her playing super with Neighbors, switching from a first quarter zone that supposedly inside oriented A&M pierced with 5 of 7 early threes, entirely to man to man second half defense while Arkansas hit sprees of threes 12 of 27.
“We knew their threes were coming,” Carter said. “Towards the end when a couple of timeouts were called we said, ’They can get a layup. Just don’t foul or let them shoot threes. Chase them off the 3-point line.”
N’Dea Jones and Ciera Johnson, A&M’s 6-2 and 6-4 forwards, both double-doubled with 22 points and 14 rebounds and Johnson’s 11 points and 10 rebounds as A&M outrebounded Arkansas, 45-29.
A&M guard Kayla Wells scored 15 while point guard Washington dealt eight assists against one turnover and played the entire 40 minutes.
After a nightmarish first half, Arkansas superstar Chelsea Dungee scored 16 second half points leading Arkansas with 20.
Senior guard Alexis Tolefree of Conway, shooting Arkansas back in it in the third quarter, scored 18 including 6 of 8 threes.
Ramirez scored 14 and senior forward Kiara Williams played big off the bench with 11 points and four rebounds and blocked two shots.
Texas A&M’s star on her game and Arkansas’ star off her game defined much of the A&M, 27-18 first quarter.
Carter hit 5 of 6 shots and scored 13 first-quarter points.
Dungee hit 1 of 5 and scored two.
“We shot the heck out of the three against their zone,” Blair said. “But then he (Neighbors) switched to man and they ran their man defense much better than we ran our man offense. We had seven turnovers in the third quarter. And Dungee is an All-American and in the second half she played like an All-American. Dungee is just that good. And when Tolefree gets hot and Ramirez gets that hot, you never are going to hold down all three of them. Mike has a Top 25 team and he will be in the NCAA Tournament.”
A 2-0 lead on Taylah Thomas’ free throws at 9:17 marked Arkansas’ lone first-quarter lead which the Aggies peak led, 22-10.
Dungee hit her lone first quarter basket at 2:19 and Tolefree hit a couple of threes as Arkansas pulled to within seven before Jones’ last basket put the Aggies up 27-18.
Dungee, 2 for 9 for the half, scored opening the second quarter.
Tolefree, shaking off an early second quarter injury hit a three at 6:17 to get Arkansas down 31-26.
Jones, 16 first-half points and A&M’s 22-13 rebounding dominance insured the Razorbacks rally wouldn’t last.
With Jones and Carter combining for 31 first-half points, A&M led, 44-32 at intermission.
Fueled by Tolefree threes the Razorbacks twice cut it to one on Dungee and Williams third-quarter buckets but A&M outscored Arkansas 9-5 the second quarter’s final 3:35.
It all turned in the third quarter with Arkansa battling to the wire but A&M’s size and first-half momentum was just a little too much for Arkansas’ comeback.
“It’s not just the size” Neighbors said. “It’s the size and the skill. Those guy are good. N’Dea Jones has killed us three games in a row and Cierra Johnson is a good as anybody in the country at that spot. And they got a lot from Kayla Wells. It just shows that Chennedy Carter makes everybody better. But we’re not disappointed. We’ve got 15 games to play and we had a lot of encouragement. I’m really encouraged about the resiliency that we had. We got it to a one possession game. We just didn’t make it.”
Photos Courtesy of Crant Osborne