BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON

It was very fortunate for the Arkansas women’s basketball team that The Bank of Bud Walton Arena was open for one last customer because into ESPN SportsCenter’ top play of the night.

Vanderbilt’s Marnell Garraud (31 points) banked in a 3-pointer with 4.5 seconds left – her third in the last minute and team’s seventh in as many tries in the fourth quarter – to deadlock the game 81-81.

But with no timeouts left, Razorback guard Makayla Daniels took an inbound pass from Samara Spencer, raced up court and let her own 3-pointer fly from just inside halfcourt  and it also banked in for a 84-81 home win.

Daniels let go of the basketball with one second left and noted afterwards it was a shot the players spend time working on at the end of practice.

The shot earned Daniels and Arkansas the top play on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays of the night.

“We practice them before every game,” Daniels said. “I was not expecting it to go in, but I was like, ‘What’s the worst that could happen –  we go into overtime?’”

Spencer, who led Arkansas (17-3, 4-1) with 23 points, was more confident in her backcourt mate’s shot.

“I knew it was going in as soon as it left her hands,” Spencer said. “So I was just running to the basket because I knew it was going in.”

It was a win that Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors was happy to get, but not pleased with how his team started.

The Commodores (9-10, 0-5) led 12-11 at the end of the first quarter with the Razorbacks fighting back to take a 27-26 lead at half.

That effort led to a fiery halftime speech from Neighbors.

“I don’t yell much, if ever,” Neighbors said. “You try to kind of pick the moments to use your crazy, and I did.”

Vanderbilt head coach Shea Ralph, a former UConn star who had just eight healthy scholarship players, admitted it was a classic game.

“First of all, I just want to say that those are really fun games, right? Ralph commented. “This is why you come to play in the SEC Conference, to play games like that against really good teams in a great environment. Hats off to Arkansas, you know they did what they needed to do to win the game.

“One the other end, I am extremely proud of the growth of my team. I am not a believer in moral victories at all and I hate losing, maybe more than anything else, and it stinks to play the way we did today and go home with a loss. But the growth I am seeing in my team is really inspiring.” 

It was Arkansas’ first game in eight days and its fourth consecutive victory since a humbling 69-45 home loss to LSU.

Neighbors said Ralph and Vanderbilt threw him a defensive curve ball. 

“We were obviously rusted,” Neighbors said. “I got fooled. I thought we were going to see a bunch of zone and we saw not one possession that I am aware of so as a result we  got off to a really, really, really  slow start.

“I am proud of our kids for responding at halftime. (I) challenged them more than any team that I have ever coached, period.”

Arkansas travels to No. 3 LSU (18-0, 6-0) on Thursday night at 8 p.m. in a game that will be televised by the SEC Network.

The Razorbacks follow up with a road game Sunday afternoon at No. 1 South Carolina (18-0, 6-0).

“I’m glad we got the win, but there is obviously a lot we have to work on,” Neighbors said. “We don’t have a lot of time to think about Vanderbilt right now because we have some pretty tough games coming up if you check the schedule.”

Erynn Barnum added 18 points and 9 rebounds for Arkansas while Daniels chipped in 16 points, Saylor Poffenbarger 13 and Chrissy Carr 11.

Daniels hit two free throws with 10 seconds left to put the Razorbacks up 81-78.

But Garraud, the SEC’s leading 3-pointer shooter who finished 7-of-10 effort from behind the arc, quickly tied it up with her bomb.

“I think they went 7 for 7 in the fourth quarter,” Neighbors said. “I mean, you’re thinking, ‘Surely they’re going to miss one here in a minute. Surely they’re going to miss that one. Surely that one’s not going in.’”

“I  knew they were going to be really hard to defend. But we have done a better job (before). We had some mental breakdowns on a kid that had made six or seven threes earlier and we just let her dribble up and shoot it right in our face at the end of the game.”

Arkansas led 70-61 after Daniels made a pair of free throws with 3:41 left and still had a 78-72 advantage with 28 seconds left.

But Garraud hit a 3-pointer with 21 seconds left before Barnum split a pair of free throws to make it 79-75  with 18 seconds.

Garraud nailed another 3-pointer with 11 seconds left and and then Daniels added two more charity tosses to make it 81-78 one second later.

Ralph was inspired by the performance of Garraud, who got it deadlocked again and set up Daniel’s last-second heroics.

“For a long time in college, Marnelle has been heralded and kind of pigeon-holed as a really good defensive player,” Ralph said. “But you can see her offense is blossoming, and for her to realize the complete player she can be will make us a much better team down the stretch.”

Photo by John D. James