Nate Allen Sports
FAYETTEVILLE – Include the Alabama Crimson Tide as the most recently rolled by the Arkansas Razorbacks 3-game roll through SEC women’s basketball.
Off an 83-52 SEC win last week over Vanderbilt at Walton Arena and a huge 80-79 victory over perpetual power Tennessee Monday night in Knoxville, Tenn., Coach Mike Neighbors’ Razorbacks advanced a 33-29 halftime advantage up to 17 with 57 seconds left in the fourth quarter before the Tide scored six on Arkansas’ reserves netting the final score with a 72-61 Arkansas victory Wednesday night at Walton.
The Razorbacks, 13-18 overall, 3-13 in the SEC last season with Neighbors inheriting a 13-17, 2-14 team from former Coach Jimmy Dykes, already stand 15-5, 4-2 in the SEC going into Sunday’s SEC game at Florida.
Coach Kristy Curry’s Tide, a big fourth-quarter comeback victor last season over Arkansas at Walton Arena, fall to 10-10, 2-5, and visit Georgia Sunday.
Neighbors and postgame media available Razorbacks Malica Monk and Taylah Thomas, all said memories of last season’s loss to Alabama and that the Tide rolled over Tennessee earlier this season dispelled any notions that the Razorbacks would still be celebrating their Tennessee triumph at Wednesday’s tip-off.
Senior guard Monk of North Little Rock scored a team high 16 points with four assists and logged 39 minutes because the Tide hung around until Arkansas achieved its first fourth-quarter double-digit lead, 63-53, with 3:54 left.
Thomas, alternating off the bench with starting center Kiara Williams, co-starred with Monk scoring 15 points with seven rebounds while junior guard Jailyn Mason quietly compiled an all-round seven points, nine rebounds, two steals and four assists.
Neighbors and or Curry praised them all, but Curry said Arkansas guard and Conway native Alexis Tolefree ignited the Razorbacks hitting a game-opening three at 9:36 of the 10-minute first quarter and another at 5:56 for an 8-2 lead in a game that Arkansas never trailed. Tolefree scored 14 points including 4 of 8 treys.
“Tolefree comes out of the gate and hits shot early just like she did at Tennessee,” Curry said. “She did again tonight. We had that covered in the scouting report but we didn’t defend her early in the game. And with Monk they had senior point guard play. You can’t say enough about that in this league. I don’t think Monk gets enough credit.”
Monk also cited junior college transfer Tolefree igniting Arkansas in Knoxville and again in Fayetteville.
“She brings us a spark just like the last game at Tennessee,” Monk said. “She came out and hit three threes in a row and really uplifted us. She’s unstoppable when she’s hitting those threes.”
Neighbors said of Tolefree: “She’s in a good spot right now. In shoot around she looked like Al Dillard (the 3-point bomber or Nolan Richardsons’ men’s national championship and national runner-up Razorbacks of 1994 and 1995). (Assistant coach Todd) Coach Schaefer said, ‘Don’t you dare take her out until she misses one. She did ignite us and and that opens up Mal and opens up Taylah. Taylah Thomas running the floor really tired out their big kids.”
Alabama 6-3 sophomore Jasmine Walker didn’t score any of her game-leading 18 points in the fourth quarter and added only one to her final 12 rebounds in the last 10 minutes.
Monk and Thomas both said they were determined to prove their Tennessee triumph was no fluke.
““We want to prove people wrong and show we are coming, Monk said. ““It feels amazing to be part of a team like this.”
Overall, Neighbors said, “We got a lot of good effort from a lot of different kids.”
He included senior reserve guard Raven Northcross-Baker of Malvern, inserted off the bench previously unplayed, hitting a third-quarter three after Alabama had cut Arkansas’ lead to five.
“Me and Coach Schaefer looked at each other and we both said we had a feeling Raven is going to do something good,” Neighbors said. “It was no analytics. Just me and Todd looking at each other. So we tried her and that first shot she made and it was big because we had been stagnating. It’s incredibly hard to sit on the bench the whole game and hit a big shot but she’s got a knack for doing it.”
Nate Allen Sports