Arkansas’ Neighbors embraces Thursday’s WBIT clash at Tulsa and increased scrutiny

By Dudley E. Dawson
on 2024-03-21 14:15 PM


It would be somewhat understandable if Arkansas head women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors and his squad were in a ‘woe is me’ mood this week.

A five-game losing streak to end the regular season and a first-round SEC Tournament exit meant the Razorbacks (18-14) missed out on the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season.

On top of that, the team’s leading scorer (Taliah Scott) and top rebounder (Saylor Poffenbarger) both jumped into the transfer portal on Monday, the first day it opened.

But the opportunity to play in the first NCAA-sponsored Women’s Basketball Invitational (WBIT) and a first-round game Thursday night 6:30 p.m. at Tulsa (23-9) have Arkansas’ spirits lifted.

The Razorbacks also got some good recruiting news this week as Arkansas State guard Izzy Higginbotton, who was eighth nationally in scoring this season at 22.2 points per game, announced her intention to transfer to Fayetteville.

“Our team (is) obviously disappointed not to be back in the NCAA Tournament,” Neighbors said, “but live in reality world enough to realize — and again, with the historical history of our specific sport at our specific university that going to the WBIT…we aere not going to let anybody try to frown upon that. It’s too big of a deal.”

The winner of the Arkansas-Tulsa game will play Sunday against the winner of Georgetown and Washington, Neighbors’ former team that he led to the Women’s NCAA Tournament Final Four in 2016.

Wins by Arkansas and Washington would lead to a Sunday matchup in Seattle.

Tulsa won the American Athletic Conference regular season title with a 13-5 mark and feature junior forward Temira Poindexter (20.8) and guard Delanie Crawford (19.3), the only two NCAA teammates to average over 19 points per game this season.

“They’ve got two great players in Delanie Crawford and Poindexter,” Neighbors said. “Those two kids, I know from talking to people in their league, I think a lot of people split their vote for player of the year…So, two great players, and they’ve stayed relatively healthy throughout the year.”

Former Greenwood star Mady Cartwright (6.9, 2.8) is also a starter for head coach Angie Nelp, whose team joined TCU in playing Arkansas in a preseason closed-door scrimmage.

“I’m a big fan of Angie Nelp,” Neighbors said. “She does a great job over there. That’s why we played them in a closed-door scrimmage, because I knew we would get better as a result of playing them.”

Tulsa expected to be in the NCAA Tournament, but was upset in the AAC Tournament.

“In the league tournament, they just had one bad day,” Neighbors said. “This is an NCAA-caliber team that just didn’t play good for one day.”
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Neighbors is cognizant of a growing number of fans disappointment in his program’ success only going to the NCAA Tournament in two of his seven seasons and no wins in those two trips.

As Iowa star Caitlin Clark and others have lifted the national profile and television ratings of the sport, increased scrutiny of coaches has become prevalent.

“Well, you embrace it,” Neighbors said. “I mean, you have to. That means there’s high demand. I’m glad that we have people that demand a great product. I’ve said it before: If we’re going to demand equal treatment, we need to demand equal treatment. And that’s fine.”

He notes that only three SEC teams have been to postseason play in the last six years.

“I know people get sick of hearing me say that and the fact that we have not won an NCAA Tournament game, but I will fight you over that one, too…but I am not going to let these kids get their heads down and I don’t think that’s the kids we have.

“They understand that you are only going to fail if you quit and you stop trying and this team never did that.”

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Scott averaged 22.1 points per game this season, but was not awarded the SEC’s scoring crown because she only played 19 games due to an injury and missing the last six due to what was Neighbors noted was a family emergency.

“Taliah’s situation, it’s been in the works for a while, and it’s something that just like I’ve said before, it’s nothing that anybody on the planet could control,” Neighbors said. “So I hate it. I hate the situation, but it’s the best for her and her family. When she came up here, [she] got a great hug on the way out the door.

“I wish her nothing but the best and [we will] keep her and her family in our thoughts wherever she lands — hopefully it’s not someplace we have to play against.”

Poffebarger’s situation was deemed a build up one buy Neighbors in a season where she averaged 10.2 points and 11.2 rebounds, second in the SEC behind LSU’s Angel Reese (13.1) and eighth nationally.

“Saylor’s was a little different,” Neighbors said of a player who transferred to Arkansas from UConn. “They’re all different. That one was more toward the end of the year starting to come down and a buildup of things. They’re all really different, they’re all handled differently.

“Some you have a lot of communication with, some you don’t have any communication with. Some you feel like you have answers for, others you’re blindsided by, and you be just like everybody else and start to speculate.

“I would never share intimate details about any of my players….When it comes to that, those are all things that we dealt with as a team, but they’re all different.”

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The addition of Batesville native Higginbottom should fill the void next season left by Scott’s departure.

The 5-7 guard played at Missouri for year and then two at Arkansas State after not being offered by Neighbors, who sent her a text immediate after she put her name in the transfer portal.

“I devalued how much she wanted to be a Razorback, and that’s a mistake,” Neighbors said. “And that’s why I sent it (the text) to her…. Coach [Frank] Broyles, was he the one that talked about winning with Arkansas kids? I know Coach [Houston] Nutt said it as well, but I probably lost a little sight of that because I got caught up in the rankings or the stars, or whatever it was.”

Higginbottom poured in 27 points when visiting Arkansas beat Arkansas State 82-67 back on Nov. 17.

“After she hung 27 on us, [Arkansas guard Makayla Daniels] comes in the locker room going, ‘Coach, she’s really hard to guard now,’” Neighbors said. “I just think it’s a testament to her and her family. They never stopped working [and] they never stopped having their love for the Razorbacks.

“So when I saw her name go in there, that’s the text I sent her, and she responded immediately. And when I said, ‘Hey, let’s try to get you up here sometime this week.’ [She] was like, ‘Well, how about today?’ It’s like OK, then I know exactly where we’re at with this whole thing.”

Photo by John D. James

(Last updated: 2024-03-21 14:15 PM)