Looking to the future of Arkansas women’s basketball

AUSTIN, Texas — Mike Neighbors has hinted at his excitement for the future of the University of Arkansas women’s basketball program a few times recently, but he wasn’t ready to move on Friday night.

The Razorbacks are set to fire all but one player from the team that fell 92-69 to Utah in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Frank Erwin Center.

The Neighbors will first take some time to reflect on the season that included the program’s first consecutive NCAA Tournament berths since 2002-03.

“Not yet. No. It’s still too much for these kids on this team,” Neighbors said after the season-ending loss. “We have plenty of time… but not today, not during this. There are so many emotions in this locker room. Everyone – I told them to deal with it the way they deal with it. I’m not going to tell them how to feel. Feel what you feel. We feel all probably a little differently in a different way, but that’s what makes a team sport a team sport.

“I’m excited about it. I’m going to move on very, very soon. But it’s up to us. I want them to absorb it, learn from it, grow. But I won’t talk to them, we won’t do anything. We’re going on spring break next week, so we’ll let them enjoy spring break.

Transfers Saylor Poffenbarger and Maryam Dauda are also expected to play key roles. The Dauda 6-4 has the ingredients to give Arkansas a real post presence. She and Poffenbarger practiced with the team in the second half. Poffenbarger transferred from UConn, while Dauda was fully cleared to return to action just before Christmas after surgery to repair a torn ACL.

The Razorbacks (18-14) endured their share of adversity as four different starters suffered injuries. Erynn Barnum missed six weeks with a knee injury after starting the first nine games, while Makayla Daniels was out four games late in the season with a bone bruise.

SEC Rookie of the Year Samara Spencer broke her nose in the Razorbacks’ loss to Ole Miss but didn’t miss a game. She was forced to play the final weeks of the season wearing a protective mask. Amber Ramirez, the team’s only senior, even missed two games with an undisclosed injury before Christmas.

The Razorbacks rebounded from a four-game losing streak to win the regular season finale at Mississippi State. They followed that up by edging Missouri in overtime in the SEC Tournament opener and earning a berth in the at-large NCAA Tournament – ​​the 13th in school history.

Ramirez, who finished his career as the Razorbacks’ career leader with three-point shooting percentage (42.9%), said the group stuck together and likely accomplished more than expected with five freshmen year and the loss of seven seniors.

“I think this team accomplished a lot, a lot more than a lot of people expected us to do losing everyone,” said Ramirez, who averaged 15.4 points per game. the best team. “The rest of our team, we fought as hard as we could in every game. We fought through adversity. We took people down. We had people who got sick. We just took down a lot of people and we always fought against adversity no matter what happened.

“The great family environment we had. We always stayed together no matter what. Even in that last game we played, we always stuck together. We always wanted to play for each other. It’s something I’ll treasure for the rest of my life, just the memory, like the home environment we had no matter what happened.

Ramirez was the undisputed leader of the team. The 24-year-old from San Antonio left her mark on the Razorbacks’ record books. She ranks 19th in career goalscorers (1,298), fourth in career three-pointers (261), and holds the single-season record for three-pointers (106).

Daniels acknowledged she would leave a void, but the junior said the group could capitalize on that playoff experience.

“I think that definitely fuels us just because most of us coming back next year will know what it feels like to lose, know that pain of the end of our season,” Daniels said. “So I think that will definitely fuel us and make us a much better team next year.

“Of course we lose Amber, but I think if we come together and somehow find a way to fill that void that’s going to be there – obviously we can’t replace her, but we can do our best to try to compensate for this score that she brought, the energy she brought, the leadership.

Neighbors have told how he made a mistake traveling on game day throughout the conference a year ago, which led to difficulties when the team had to stay in a hotel for a week before the NCAA tournament because of the pandemic.

But he made sure the team took advantage of his experiences in Nashville, Tennessee, for the SEC tournament and in Austin.

“You’ll never win all your matches or all the things you do in life, so you learn to deal with things together,” Neighbors said. “I think that’s a big part of the experience. But if we came here and didn’t enjoy the city, then that’s all you have. I know they’re going to talk about things that happened in the last two or three days.

“I promise you I wouldn’t trade two wins for the experience we’ve had. I will not do it. I wouldn’t change anything we’ve done in any way to prepare these guys for what they’ve been missing out on in the past. Obviously it would have been nice to have a win, but it wasn’t worth trading a win for not enjoying the experience.

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