FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas gave women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors the big crowd he wanted and an even bigger 103-85 SEC victory over the nationally 15th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats Sunday afternoon at Walton Arena.
An announced 5,638 that maybe looked even larger at Walton and indisputably was its women’s basketball largest crowd since 6,149 saw Arkansas vs. No. 5 Tennessee, Jan. 30, 2011, were treated to their nationally No. 25 Razorbacks shooting 71 percent in the second half, nailing 14 of 21 treys and 19 of 22 free throws for the game and with a 33-19 third-quarter breaking open a game they only led, 38-35 at half.
Senior guard Alexis Tolefree of Conway, 30 points with 25 in the second half and for the game hitting 5 of 10 threes and 7 of 7 free throws with seven rebounds, and junior guard Chelsea Dungee, 24 points, 14 in the second half including for the game 4 of 4 treys and 4 for 4 free throws, led the Arkansas charge upping the Razorbacks to 19-5 overall, 7-4 in the SEC going into their next game next Sunday at Ole Miss.
Arkansas forward Taylah Thomas added 13 points and seven rebounds. The usually on the boards disadvantaged Razorbacks outrebounded Kentucky, 37-23.
Coach Matthew Mitchell’s Wildcats fell to 18-5, 7-4.
By the final score it may seem the Wildcats fell easily. They didn’t.
Behind guard Chasity Patterson, scoring a game-high 32 points including 5 of 7 treys, and superstar freshman Rhine Howard, 20 points despite a cumbersome padded bandage on her injured hand, Kentucky narrowed Arkansas’ 71-54 third quarter ending lead to down to eight at 4:22 before the Razorbacks again pulled away.
Neighbors said they needed the crowd’s every Hog call from “the tip to every time Kentucky made a big run. The crowd had an answer for us.”
And advice, too.
“I really appreciated the guy who kept yelling guard 15 (Patterson),” Neighbors said, laughing. “I didn’t think about that until they started yelling at me. We were trying. And Howard maybe scores 40 if she has two hands. But our crowd was tremendous. They were the difference today.”
Well, Tolefree and Dungee made a difference, too.
“Chelsea going 8 for 12 and 4 for 4 from the 3-point line and doing all that stuff makes us incredibly hard to guard,” Neighbors said. “And early in the game she made three great passes in transition that got us going. And obviously Lex caught fire in the second half. For us to score 65 points in the second half on a good Kentucky team, I wouldn’t have predicted that.”
He certainly wouldn’t have predicted his usually rebound challenged Hogs cleaning the boards, 37-23.
“That rebounding number, Neighbors said. “ESPN asked me that question on the air. And I said when I looked down at those numbers and saw us plus 14 I thought I was looking at it wrong that it was the Kentucky. That’s the sign of engagement when you get rebounds and 50-50 balls.”
Arkansas opened one 5-point lead, 19-14, during the first quarter but on a Kentucky 7-0 run trailed 21-19 at the 10-minute quarter’s end.
Successive threes by Tolefree and Dungee peaked an Arkansas lead, 33-23 at 3:15 of the second quarter.
A Kentucky flurry closed to 35-31 before Arkansas senior reserve center Kiara Williams scored inside and was fouled and converted a key and-one 3-point play with 1:19 left for a 38-31 lead.
At half it was closed to 38-35 on Amanda Paschal’s free throws at 1:03 and Jaida Roper beating the clock for a 2-point jumper one tick before intermission.
It went Arkansas’ way as Tolefree, postgame declaring she was hungry even after eating Kentucky’s lunch, sizzled with 13 third-quarter points.
“Honestly I just took what they gave me,” Tolefree said. “And my teammates set me up really well. We lost Thursday (86-65 to nationally No. 1 South Carolina) and came back focused on Kentucky. Rebounding and defensive stops this game really helped.”
Obviously it did, Kentucky coach Mitchell said of his Wildcats being Arkansas’ first nationally ranked victim this season.
“You have to give Arkansas a ton of credit,,” Mitchell said. “For the overwhelming portion of the game they had more passion, more energy and more will to win. You could see they really wanted this game and they got it done. It was Arkansas’ day. They earned that victory.”
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3, Sports Action