FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas seniors Alexis Tolefree of Conway and Kiara Williams of Little Rock Central played their Razorbacks career home women’ basketball finale Sunday under “historic” circumstances, their coach said.
For with starting guard Tolefree scoring a game-leading 17 points as off the bench center Williams contributed nine points, four rebounds and a blocked shot, the Razorbacks tied one program precedent and set another while defeating the LSU Tigers, 75-71.
The victory upped Coach Mike Neighbors ‘ assuredly NCAA Tournament bound Razorback to 22-7 overall into this week’s SEC Tournament at Greenville, S.C and closed a 10-6 SEC regular season ledger. That ledger knotted a 4-way third-place tie with 10-6 SEC sisters Texas A&M, Kentucky, and Tennessee behind 16-0 champion South Carolina and 13-3 runner-up Mississippi State.
Though just a league game behind the third-place logjam LSU, 19-9 overall, at 9-7 in the league finishes seventh in the SEC,
“I’m really proud that we send our seniors out historically,” Greenwood native Neighbors said. “First time since 2012 (when former Coach Tom Collen’s Razorbacks won 10 SEC games for the only previous time in their SEC women’s history) and the first time we’ve ever finished third in the SEC.”
As the fifth-seed after the SEC tie-breakers formula was sorted, Arkansas will play in Thursday’s second round of the SEC Tournament against Wednesday’’s first round survivor of 12th and 13th seeds Vanderbilt vs. Auburn.
The Razorbacks Sunday needed a balanced scoring effort with 11 points from backup point guard A’Tyanna Gaulden, including nine in a nine minute stretch of the 36-29 Arkansas led first half, 10 each from Taylah Thomas and Chelsea Dungee, and seven, eight and nine from guards Makayla Daniels, Amber Ramirez and Williams’ 11.
Tolefree and Ramirez, two each, and Daniels and Gaulden combined for the six 3-pointers outweighing LSU’s 2 of 14 for treys and neutralizing the far bigger and more physical Tigers, 41-32 rebounding advantage including 22 offensive boards.
“We’re little,” Tolefree, listed at 5-7, said. “So coaches that scout us always tell their teams to get us on the boards and get second chance points. We just have to do what we can.”
What they do is speed the game’s pace.
“When you play a team like Arkansas that runs up and down and shoots a lot of threes you’ve got to be locked in,” LSU Coach Nikki Fargas said. “You can’t have mishaps.”
Like 6-5 LSU center Faustine Aifuwa, dominating as she was blocking seven shots and grabbing 10 rebounds and scoring eight points, shooting free throws zero for six.
“Our tag team (alternating 6-1 centers Thomas and Williams) running her all over the floor was a big reason Faustine shot 0 for 6 on free throws,” Neighbors said.
So even as Tigers Jailin Cherry, a 16-points/10 rebounds double-double, while Tigers Khayla Pointer and Awa Trasi scored 13 each and Jayelyn Richard-Harris scored, 11, Arkansas’ pace caused them to foul, (20 fouls morphed into 23 of 32 Arkansas free throws to LSU’s 15 of 26 with Arkansas whistled 15 times.
“Arkansas has really good players on the dribble drives and kicks and we were fouling way too much on our part,” Fargas said.
Fargas also said Arkansas’ tempo baited the Tigers to attempting more threes than is their wont.
However with Tigers able to keep shooting and re-shooting off the glass, there were stretches it seemed they couldn’t be stopped.
“Lex (Tolefree) kept answering,” Neighbors said. “She has the clutch gene.”
However in a game-ending role reversal, Dungee, who had been struggling from the free throw, bailed out Tolefree.
Arkansas clung to a 73-71 lead when Tolefree, double teamed in the backcourt, wafted a too high pass towards Dungee. LSU’s Mercedes Brooks went for the ball but while doing so fouled Dungee with 24 seconds left.
A 229 of 275 free throw shooter last season, Dungee had only hit 2 of 6 Sunday until those last two. She hit them both. Then third-year junior transfer via Oklahoma Dungee blocked Cherry’s shot with 10 seconds left leaving LSU time for nothing but anticlimactic 3-ball try at the buzzer that missed but would have been a point shy even had it found the range.
Tolefree, a second-year junior college transfer, and Williams, a 4-year Razorback whose first year before lettering three for Neighbors was on former Coach Jimmy Dykes’ 2-14 in the SEC Razorbacks, expressed gratitude winning their Walton finale and for their UA time that will conclude in their first NCAA Tournament.
“I’m really glad I stayed and gave Coach Neighbors a chance,” Williams said. “He really brought the fun back.”
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3 Sports Action