FAYETTEVILLE – The Tennessee Lady Vols fabled basketball orange got shaded Amber.
Or more accurately shaded by Amber
Amber Ramirez’s 29 points including 5 of 14 3-pointers, but also six field goals from midrange plus 22 points and a team-leading seven rebounds by Conway’s Alexis Tolefree paced ever advancing Arkansas to an 83-75 SEC victory over the Lady Vols Thursday night before 3,023 at Walton Arena.
Coach Mike Neighbors’ nationally No. 22 Razorbacks advance to 21-5 overall, 9-4 in the SEC into Sunday’s SEC game at Florida while Tennessee fell to 17-9, 7-6 in the SEC.
It marks only the second time (Tom Collen’s 2012 Razorbacks went 10-6 in the SEC) that Arkansas’ women have won nine SEC games since joining the league in 1991-92.
They have opportunities to meet or beat their SEC zenith with three SEC games left before the SEC Tournament.
“Nine wins!” Tolefree exclaimed Thursday as she and Ramirez were interviewed postgame. “This was a big win for us. Beating Tennessee is always big.”
Arkansas is 5-31 against the Lady Vols going back to the glory coaching years of the late Pat Summitt but has won the last two meetings, last year over since fired Holly Warlick’s Lady Vols and now this season under former Lady Vols All-American Kellie Harper (Jolly when she played for Summitt’s 1998 national champions).
Despite Tennessee’s tradition, Neighbors said his surging team now winning 6 of their last 7 arrived “expecting to win.”
“That’s a great place to be,” Neighbors said,
Arkansas led the Lady Vols Thursday as much as 16 during the fourth quarter before the Lady Vols rallied to cut it to six (75-69 at 1:14).
Tolefree, 6 of 7 free throws, Chelsea Dungee, 7 of free throws and 16 points, and Ramirez all hit late free throws to hold off the Lady Vols.
The NCAA’s tallest team with nine players 6-1 to 6-5 and outrebounding Arkansas, 46-31, the Razorbacks fought inside to be outscored only 12-8 on second chance points. They all but literally stole the game outscoring Tennessee, 23-10 on points off turnovers forcing 23 Tennessee miscues while committing 11.
“We got some second half points but not enough,” Harper said.
Neighbors called that the “difference in the game.”
So did his players. Also noting they were unfazed by Tennessee blocking five shots.
“We knew they are the NCAA’s biggest team,” Ramirez said. “So our game plan was don’t let them get their hands on a lot of balls and make sure we take the right shots (including 11 of 29 threes as a team) and I think we had great shots throughout the whole game.”
Rae Burrell, instrumental in Tennessee’s fourth-quarter comeback, led Tennessee with 21 points and nine rebounds while Rennia Davis scored 18 for Tennessee.
Tennessee scored the game’s first six points and never trailed in the first quarter until the period’s last shot.
Ties of 12-12 and 16-16 were the best Arkansas mustered until Tolefree played keep away 12 of the quarter’s last 13 seconds before banking in a short jumper at :01 for an 18-16 lead.
A Tolefree three opened the second quarter that Arkansas always led and closed up 33-25 at intermission with a Kiara Williams fast break layup off A’Tyanna Gaulden’s pass the final basket with one minute left.
Ramirez’s 14 points led Arkansas’ first half scoring.
“We weathered a punch in the face to start the game,” Neighbors said. “But we hung together and other than that little stretch when they pressed us late in the fourth quarter we played about as well as we could.”
Asked about Ramirez and Tolefree, Neighbors said, “Everybody thinks what Amber does best is shoot the three but she’s got a killer midrange. And when it’s what they give you, you have to take it. And when they made a adjustment she started moving it around and got them spread out and made them change their game plan.”
Tolefree, the smallest Razorback listed a generous 5-8 was the biggest on the boards.
“Her rebounding!” Neighbors said. “She was tipping so many balls, the steal after she made a layup (giving Arkansas its first 10-point lead). Her energy level. She’s contagious.”
Despite the Lady Vols outrebounding Arkansas, 22-11 in the first half, Arkansas compensated more than some in points off turnovers, 18-6 while forcing 16 first-half turnovers compared to committing six.
A Tolefree three ignited Arkansas to start Thursday’s third quarter as Arkansas kept pushing the pace.
“The pace quickened in the second half which I’m sure was by their design,” Harper said. “I thought it gave their offense more open looks than anything. The turnovers, we just average too many turnovers. Our players did give ourselves a chance to get back in the game but we needed a few more stops to get over the hump.”