FAYETTEVILLE – Alexis Tolefree’s delayed dream blossomed into an even bigger reality than she dreamed. Needing two years at Jones Junior College in Mississippi to reach her dream of playing Arkansas Razorbacks basketball, Conway native Tolefree in her second and final UA season was named All First-Team All-SEC by the SEC coaches, the SEC Office announced Tuesday in Birmingham, Ala.
Tolefree’s individual honor, accompanied by junior teammate Chelsea Dungee named Second-Team All-SEC for the second consecutive season, adds Tolefree icing on a cake still baking.
Senior guard Tolefree stars for an Arkansas women’s team winning SEC 10 games (10-6 in a 4-way third-place tie) for just the second time in its history. At 22-7 overall and ranked 25th in the AP poll, third-year coach Mike Neighbors’ Razorbacks are assured Arkansas’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015 even before its second-round SEC Tournament game Thursday in Greenville, S.C. between Wednesday’s first round winner of Auburn vs. Vanderbilt.
“It’s been a big deal for me to even play here,” Tolefree said seated besides Neighbors on Tuesday at the interview podium. “It means a lot to go out like this my senior year, making an NCAA appearance, and of course we’re not done yet. Being from Conway as an Arkansas kid, that’s a big deal to me. I haven’t seen Arkansas teams compete in the NCAA Tournament in a long time. And for me to be on that team that does it is a big deal.”
And to do so recognized first-team All-SEC …“It’s just a blessing,” Tolefree said. “Something I worked for after the season last year not playing the best that I could.” Tolefree corrected herself. Playing All-SEC caliber was her goal more than beyond recognized as such. “Getting into the gym this year and not necessarily worrying about what I can get out of the conference or whatever but helping my team win,” Tolefree said. “Whatever I can do to be successful for my teammates.”
As she noted, Tolefree didn’t felt she was all that she could be last season. She expressed regret even while averaging a third on team 10.2 points in a supporting role to Dungee leading Arkansas to a 22-15 season ending three rounds deep into the WNIT after taking Arkansas to the final of the SEC Tournament.
Neighbors said Tolefree has nothing to regret from last season, especially since she used the offseason to improve after her first SEC season to know what needs improving and the effort required to achieve it. “I don’t think she’s different,” Neighbors said. “I think she’s better adjusted. Better adjusted how I coach her. The unfortunate part about being only able to coach a kid for two years is it takes some time. She’s motivated. When she talks about getting back in the gym, she did put the work in. That was a clear piece of evidence.”
Tolefree strived individually to mesh collectively with shooting stars Dungee, established with the Oklahoma Sooners before reemerging at Arkansas, and Amber Ramirez, established at TCU before transferring to redshirt at Arkansas last season and join in triumvirate averaging 15.0 points with Tolefree averaging 16.3 and Dungee, 17.0. “Me and Chelsea played together last year and it was easy,” Tolefree said. “She made it fun to be on the court. And, adding Amber it’s even more fun because when we’re all clicking it’s deadly on the court. We all kind of play alike. We live to shoot threes. And we like to drive. I’m ready for a game when all three of us are on. And I’m just scared for our opponent when that does happen.”
Neighbors said the possibilities became evident in a preseason workout against the volunteer men’s practice squad. “We put them all together to see how it was going to work. I made some eye contact with Coach Todd (Schaefer his top assistant) and said, ‘We’re really going to be hard to guard if we can get it right.” That all three are as unselfish as they are avid to shoot threes plus the team’s style allows the mesh “The experience they all have together is there are plenty of shots to go around because we don’t turn it over and we play fast,” Neighbors said. “So on some teams there wouldn’t be enough balls to go around. But when you shoot it the number of times we shoot it, there’s still plenty of opportunities to score and create for your teammates.”
For Alexis Tolefree, it’s created a dream still fulfilling.