Nate Allen Sports
FAYETTEVILLE – Apparently these Arkansas Razorbacks women aren’t quite good enough to beat nationally No. 22 Arizona State.
But unlike last season, they are more than good enough to battle the Sun Devils down to the last basket.
Start to finish devilishly demolished, 89-43 by the Sun Devils last season in Tempe, Ariz.,second-year Arkansas Coach Mike Neighbors’ combination of recruited new players and improved returnees, three times led ASU in Sunday’s second quarter before trailing 46-42 at half and cut ASU’s 9-point largest fourth-quarter lead to three finally defeated, 88-85 before 1,189 Sunday night at Walton Arena.
Coach Charli Turner Thorne’s Pac 12 power Sun Devils advance to 3-1.
Arkansas drops to 2-1 heading into playing three games in three days Friday through Sunday against Tennessee State, Pittsburgh and Wisconsin at the Music Challenge in Nashville.
However “drop” is not an accurate verb given Neighbors’ summation of Arkansas’ improvement against a Sun Devils team he recalled “ last year beating us 52-14 at halftime and we lost by 45.”
“Anybody that doesn’t believe in moral victories has never been part of a team in a rebuilding situation,” Neighbors said Sunday night. “They do exist and tonight that was one of them. They are a great team and for us to battle them that close that’s a good measuring stick for us. Our progress is very good.”
Neighbors’ best of new and old manifested in junior college transfer Alexis Tolefree of Conway leading Arkansas with 22 points while Chelsea Dungee, redshirting at Arkansas last season as a transfer from the University of Oklahoma, scored 22 while returning guards Malica Monk, the senior from North Little Rock, scored 13 and junior guard Jailyn Mason scored 11 and returning junior forward Kiara Williams of Little Rock Central led Arkansas’ rebounding with nine with nine while scoring eight points.
“It is a combination of the infusion of the players (recruited by former Coach Jimmy Dykes) who were so good to stick around during the transition welcoming the new people,” Neighbors said. “We couldn’t have done it without them. And the new people meshed as a unit. We still have some work to do but the mesh of those two groups have been really fun to watch.”
And it showed, ASU Coach Charli Turner Thorne said.
“We knew they would be ready to play us after they beat us so bad last year,” Turner Thorne said. “And we knew they had improved with their transfers and Tolefree. And I think they’ll do well in the SEC. Give Arkansas credit. We had a long trip and a long day and we played like it. We didn’t defend. We were a step slow but I’m really proud of them sticking with it and beating a team like Arkansas that’s much improved. All their returners are better and they’ve added some good players. Their challenge in the SEC is going to be their (relatively small) size and their rebounding but they can get to the rim and they have 3-level scorers. They are going to get better every week.”
It took her deep bench, Turner Thorne’s reserves outscored Neighbors’ reserves 42-11 and a 20-night from starting 6-1senior forward Kianna Ibis and 13 points from junior starting guard Robbi Ryan matching the 13 off the bench from freshman Iris Mbulito while 6-2 senior reserve forward Sophia Elenga double-doubled with 11 points and 12 boards 6-3 senior center Charnea Johnson-Chapman grabbed seven rebounds.
The senior savvy kept the Sun Devils afloat when the Hogs refused to wither.
“There’s not a lot they haven’t played through so they never panicked and finished off the game,” Turner Thorne said.
Arkansas’ players didn’t panic, either.
“I thought we did a great job and did what Coach asked us to do,” Dungee said. “You look at the game last year and we improved on a lot of things and this is only our third regular season game this year. I wish we came up with a win but we will take something from it.”
Conway’s Tolefree concurred.
“We did exactly what Coach asked us to do,” Tolefree said. “We played hard and we stayed together as a team. I’m looking forward to what comes next. A 3-point ballgame against the No. 22 ranked team, I felt like we did pretty good.”
Arkansas almost made it a 2-point game when Monk missed two free throws with Arkansas down 79-75 and 2:53 left.
Free throws by Ibis completed a 9-0 ASU run for an 84-75 lead at 1:31 before a Dungee three started one last spree that a Mason layup cut to three, down 85-82 with 18 seconds left.
Arkansas had to foul. ASU hit 3 of 4 free throws from 16 seconds to nine seconds left on the game clock for the 5-point cushion that left Dungee’s game-ending layup three points shy from overtime.
Nate Allen Sports