BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
The WNIT is not the postseason tournament that Arkansas’ women’s basketball team planned to be playing in this week, but it is the one that could allow the Razorbacks a chance to change the narrative some.
Arkansas (21-12) will host Conference USA foe Louisiana Tech (19-12) Thursday night at 7 p.m. in its opening round game at Bud Walton Arena.
“I love the way that all the players..are approaching it the same way – we are in it to win it,” Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors said. “You have to be or you run into a team that wants to win more badly than you do and it shows up.
“You can look at the history of this tournament. You see upset after upset in the first round with smaller conferences beating the bigger conferences because of that very reason.”
Louisiana Tech won seven of their last eight regular season games before falling to UTEP in its league tournament.
The Lady Techsters’ head coach is Arkansas native Brooke Lassiter Stoehr, who is from Portland was a Arkansas Gatorade Player of the for Hamburg.
She played for Loiusiana Tech was an assistant coach at UALR under Joe Foley.
“We are thrilled to be playing in the postseason and are excited to be included in an extremely competitive WNIT field,” s Stoeher said. “Arkansas is a very good basketball team and will provide a big challenge for us in the first round.
“I know our team is excited to still be playing in March and have an opportunity to compete for a championship starting Thursday.”
Neighbors is not surprised by the pairing of teams.
“They were one of the teams that we kind of projected that could be an opponent because it is all so regional,” Neighbors said. “A lot go people don’t understand that there are no seeds in the WNIT.
“…They are playing very well and were in league that had a lot of good teams at the top and they were one of them. I know they will be motivated and we have to make sure we match that motivation.”
Neighbors is aware of how his players were just as disappointed as he was that Arkansas was not invited to the women’s version of The Big Dance.
“If you invest in something like we do, it’s going to hurt if you don’t (make it),” Neighbors said. “It’s ridiculous to tell people that you have got to move right on. You have got to deal with your feelings.
“I didn’t give them long…But that is part of it and I think that is part of our ability to learn.”
He thinks it might lean to an extra push for next season.
“Hey, maybe this summer will be get an extra rep in sand pit or we will go a little bit harder in a 5-on-0 drill in August,” Neighbors said.
“Because if you unpack it, there are literally about seven or eight games where a possession could have flipped how we felt sitting in my living room the other night.
The NCAA Tournament and will remain the stated goal each year per Neighbors.
“Of course we all want to go the NCAA Tournament and we want that to be a regular year thing. I understand that and I accepted that when I took this job.
“But I also know the history of this job and know that we haven’t been a go to an NCAA Tournament team every year program.
“We have been being competitive and been in the mix to be in that talk.”
Neighbors knows he might get some backlash on that statement.
“I know people hate me because I am overly optimistic when I come at them with things and they think I am trying to rationalize success and lack of success.
“But I can assure you that there is nobody more down about it than we are.
“But I am also a realist and realize the history of this program and the history of being in the SEC.”
Neighbors offers up the fact that only three SEC programs have been in postseason play the last five seasons.
“And when you look at the fact that there are only three teams in the entire league that have played in the postseason the past five – or have qualified for the postseason. And I am even counting the Covid year…We know that you had an above .500 record in league play, that you were going to the NIT. It’s a stated rule. So I’ve given that to all 14 teams.
“But when you use that criteria, there are only three teams that have played in five postseasons. It’s Tennessee, it’s South Carolina and one other than – one – and it’s us. That’s pretty good company to be in.
“I want our kids to know that. I don’t want them to be satisfied with it. I want us to strive for SEC Championships and NCAA Tournaments every single year – no doubt about it.
“But I also don’t want to have to walk around feeling like the WNIT experience is a lesser experience in the grand scheme of things over the course of their career.”
Photo by John D. James