BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
For the third straight season the University of Arkansas’ women’s basketball program will take on the challenge of meeting a quartet of in-state foes.
That stretch will begin Tuesday night at 7 p.m. when the Razorbacks (2-0) host Little Rock (0-2) at Bud Walton Arena and will be followed up a Friday night trip to Jonesboro to face Arkansas State (1-1) and a clash next Monday with visiting UCA (1-1).
Arkansas will also host UAPB (0-2) on Dec. 10 as the Razorbacks take full advantage of a 2019 change of an Arkansas athletic ban of scheduling for in-state teams, one ending a 36-year drought of doing so.
It was a policy that Greenwood native and Razorback head coach Mike Neighbors admits he didn’t get, but he quickly jumped right in on.
“I grew up not understanding why they didn’t and I wanted to see those games,” Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors said. “I understood after I got older why and I got it.
“But then the second the people way up the up chain from me said it was okay – the Board off Trustees and (athletic director) Hunter (Yuracheck), my bosses, – I just thought that for women’s basketball – and I say this every time, I don’t know anything about any other sport, but for women’s basketball, our state needs it.”
Arkansas is 12-0 against in-state women’s basketball games since 2019.
“Our state in underrated when it comes to our high school programs, our grass root programs,” Neighbors said, “…and I also said it that first year, the day is coming when we are going to lose one of those and everybody is going to go ‘see, I told ya.’ It’s coming, these teams are good.”
Neighbors sees playing in-state schools as his responsibility.
“I just think we have to do it in women’s basketball to grow our high school sports, our grass root programs and then each other,” Neighbors said. “I pull for all of those guys, except for the night that we play them.”
Neighbors does not believe all the games between the in-state programs have to be played in Fayetteville.
“We have been to UAPB, we have been to Little Rock multiple times, this will be our second trip to Arkansas State and we are trying to scheduled a game with UCA in Conway next year,” Neighbors said.
“I don’t think it has got to be a game where they just come to us. I think we have to be able to go there and our kids have to be able to understand the importance.
“We might not play all four of them every single year for the next four years. We may go two and two, but I do things we have that responsibility to try and grow our sport and grow our game.”
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Arkansas is 5-0 all-time against Little Rock, a program that the Razorbacks are playing the fifth straight season.
The Razorbacks downed the Trojans 93-49 last season in Little Rock, where three of the games in the series have been played.
Tuesday’s match up will feature Neighbors against a mentor and friend of his legendary head coach and Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame Joe Foley.
Foley, 835-29 in his head coaching career, was the head coach at Arkansas Tech from 1987-2003 before taking over Little Rock, which was called the University of Arkansas-Little Rock at the time.
Foley’s Little Rock teams have won at least 20 games in 11 of the past 14 seasons.
The Trojans have dropped their first two games this season with visiting Kansas State beating Little Rock 77-39 last Saturday after previously losing to Missouri State 62-47 in their season opener.
“I’ve said it in the past and y’all know my affinity and what he did for me while I was a high school coach and with the teams I had,” Neighbors said.
“He’s been a friend, a tough competitor on there golf course and somebody for me that has made an impact in what we do and how we do it.”
Neighbors notes Foley’s team have a brand, but are also unpredictable at the same time.
“They are very identifiable,” Neighbors said. “It is going to be a very low possession game. You know they are going to make you work to defend multiple motion actions that none of us can predict.
“There is not a coach in the world that can predict what Joe Foley is going to do successfully in a game. So we will just go over concepts and get rest.”
Little Rock’s non-conference schedule has some SEC flavor with the game at Arkansas on Tuesday, hosting Alabama on Saturday, traveling to Ole Miss Nov. 25 and hosting Auburn on Dec. 10.
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Arkansas State is 1-1 after losing at South Dakota State 55-42 in its season opener and then downing visiting Northern Illinois 75-62 last Saturday.
Former Batesville star Izzy Higginbottom, who started her college career at Missouri, is averaging 26.5 points per game for Arkansas State and head coach Destinee Rogers.
Higginbottom had career-highs of 31 points and 8 rebounds in the victory over Northern Illinois after scoring 22 at Sooth Dakota State.
Higginbottom had a team-high 19 points in Arkansas’ 77-63 win our Arkansas State in Fayetteville last season.
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Arkansas beat UCA 72-34 at Bud Walton Arena last season during a season when the Lady Bears went 8-18.
UCA (1-1) has a new head coach in Tony Kemper, who took over for Sandra Rushing, who stepped down after 11 years.
Kemper had previously been an assistant for both UCA men’s and women’s teams.
He spent the last six seasons as the head coach for Marshall women for the last six seasons while going 79-90 overall, including 17-13 in 2022-23
UCA beat visiting crosstown foe Hendrix 85-25 in its season opener and then lost at Samford 65-62 on Saturday.
“We have already talked about Coach Foley, but Tony at UCA is somebody I have known for a number of years and he has gone in there and assembled a squad that plays the style he likes,” Neighbors said.
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UAPB may be 0-2, but Neighbors is impressed with head coach Dawn Thurman’s squad.
UAPB lost at Oregon State 85-74 and then fell at Oregon 86-60
“You saw what UAPB did own their Oregon trip,” Neighbors said. “They had Oregon State down to the buzzer and the played the next night at Oregon, they’ve got three McDonald’s all-Americans on their team.”
Arkansas downed UAPB 70-50 in Pine Bluff last season in the Razorbacks’ season-opener.
Photo by John D. James