By DUDLEY E. DAWSON
FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas women’s head basketball coach Mike Neighbors expected a test in his team’s season opener against the University of Louisiana-Monroe and that’s exactly what happened.
Freshman guard Taliah Scott poured in an Arkansas first-game freshman-record 29 points and redshirt sophomore Saylor Poffenbarger grabbed a career-high 21 rebounds as the Razorbacks fended off the Warhawks 81-76 Tuesday night at Bud Walton Arena.
Makayla Daniels added 17 points and Samara Spencer 14 for Arkansas, who trailed ULM 32-31 at halftime before an announced crowd of 2,630 fans.
“Our team right now, we have a lot of new faces, a lot of new pieces,” Spencer said. “I just feel like it was like a testimony to what we’re looking forward to the rest of the season. It wasn’t pretty, but we still got a win at the end of the day.”
Neighbors also refused to be upset after remaining unbeaten in season openers in his seven years at the helm of the Razorbacks.
“If somebody is going to try and drag me down, good luck because it ain’t going to happen,” Neighbors said. “I’m ecstatic that we were able to get out of this.
“…The way we turned it over, we’ll fix. Those are all fixable ones and I think the shot selection will come with film work and a little bit of coaching.”
Former Auburn guard Jakayla Johnson had a game-high 34 points to lead the visitors while going 13 of 17 from the field.
“She (Johnson) started hitting some incredibly tough finishes around the basket,” Neighbors said. “The four shots that she missed, I thought were going in.”
Clemson transfer Daisha Bradford added 14 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists while Shania Wells, another Auburn transfer, chipped in 12 points.
“We saw her (Johnson) last year and knew and played Bradford down in the Virgin Islands,” Neighbors said. “I look at this roster, there’s only, I think, three kids on their roster that were there last year. It’s a team that, just pay attention to them. They’re going to have a good year.”
It was the ULM debut of Missy Bilderback, a former Jones College head coach who was 198-23 in the last eight years and took over a team that was 7-23 last season.
“I think it gives us a ton of usable film,” Neighbors said. “Like I said, when we schedule this game that wasn’t the roster they was in their website…We were not planning on opening against a team that had three Power 5 guards coming in.
“So I am glad that we have it now, looking back. I wasn’t really fired about it coming in. If you heard me talking the last two weeks, I tried to tell everybody that this not the 348th ranked – or whatever they had them ranked at – in the RPI. That was the team from last year.
“With the portal the way it is and the job that she does…I knew what we were in for. I knew their guards were going to be like that and we prepared for it.”
Scott, a 5-9 McDonald’s All-American and 5-star Florida prepster who averaged 36.2 points per game as a senior, had a big night.
She was 9 of 20 from the field, 2 of 8 from 3-point range and 9 of 13 on her free throws.
““My motto is just go out there and have fun,” Scott said. “I’d never done it before. It was my first game and I was kind of nervous, but once the ball tipped off, I was just locked in.
“I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and my coaches that believed in me. (They) got me in the right spots, got me great opportunities and great shots. That’s how that happened.”
Poffenbarger came up just one rebound shy of tying Shelly Wallace’s Arkansas’ single-game game mark of 22, set against SMU on Feb. 13, 1988.
She tied Taylah Thomas’ 21 caroms in a 2019 against New Orleans for the second-best board effort in school history.
“She goes after all of them,” Neighbors said. “You know, that’s the first point – not everybody goes after all of them…She’s got the toughness and the physicality to absorb the first hit and give the first hit sometimes.
“I think it’s just kind of who that kid is. When you’ve been around her family and you see how she’s been raised, she’s going to do tough things.”
Arkansas had 16 turnovers while shooting 24 of 69 (36 percent) from the field and just 5 of 30 (16.7 percent) from 3-point range.
Spencer was 10 of 12 from the line, but Arkansas was just 28 of 44 overall on its charity tosses.
ULM made 30 of 79 field goal attempts (38 percent), was 7 of 26 on its 3-pointers and 9-of-12 from the free throw line in a physical game where 43 fouls were called.
“I am glad we got tested,” Neighbors said. “Obviously, like I said, it is not the game that we scheduled a year-and-a-half ago. So I am glad that we did survive it.
“But we made lots of mistakes down the stretch on time management, shot selection from some our young kids, some of our new players that had not been in that situation. So we get a chance to coach.
“I do think this is a team that will be able to be coached after wins. I don’t think it is going to take a loss to get their attention.”
Arkansas will host Murray State in its annual Elementary School game Friday morning at 10:30 a.m.
Photo by John D. James