Four seconds were all that were left on the clock for the Tennessee women’s basketball team to break its losing streak. The Volunteers failed, lost to the Razorbacks for just the second time at home in program history and walked off the court with their fifth-straight loss, their worst start to the conference season in over 70 years.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I was kind of scared,” Razorback senior guard Malica Monk said after the game. “But my teammates had confidence in me making that shot. So, I just risked it all, and to know they had my back it gave me an extra boost. It was really amazing."
Monk put Tennessee in that situation. Her crossover and subsequent mid-range jumper sank the Volunteers in the final moments of their Jan. 21 game. Monk’s game-winner brought new milestones: the Hogs’ fourth all-time victory over Tennessee, their third conference win on the season--tying their SEC win total from a year ago-- and their 14th overall win this year, a number Arkansas hasn’t reached since the 2014-15 season.
However, the go-ahead bucket also solidified one constant: coach Mike Neighbors’ superiority in one-possession games.
The Hogs have been involved in five games that came down to the wire. They came out on top on four of those occasions, losing only to now-No. 16 Arizona State by three points. The Razorbacks also beat Nebraska at home by four points in mid-December.
The ability to win when the pressure is at its highest comes with experience. The additions of transfer players like Alexis Tolefree (9.7 ppg) and Chelsea Dungee (18.9 ppg), two of Arkansas’ highest-scoring players, has certainly added to that experience in a roster that already has a good crop of players, like Monk, who are no strangers to college competition anymore.
Because of the lack of a clear go-to star to take the last shot, several players have had their fair share of spotlight time in these one-possession games, making this adeptness a result of team efforts, not individual ones.
Back at the start of the season, Tolefree beat Texas-Arlington on a buzzer beater. Senior forward Bailey Zimmerman’s clutch-time block on the three-point line gave the Hogs the victory over Nebraska. Some Razorback pressure defense forced a Wisconsin turnover in the dying moments of their win over the Badgers. Monk gave the Hogs the win against Tulsa with a layup and eight seconds left, and she did it again against the Volunteers.
“I wasn’t too worried,” Dungee said on Monk’s latest game-winner. “I had confidence in us. We practiced last-second shots before we came up here. We knew that was a possibility, so we executed, and we worked on those things in practice. Doing it in a game is no different."
Practice. That’s what it took.
Compared to their male counterparts, the women’s side is more successful when the game’s on the line, although they have played in less of these scenarios than the men. Coach Mike Anderson’s team successfully closed out some games but failed at other times against Texas, Western Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Florida and LSU. It’s that same men's team, though, that helped Neighbors' roster get more clutch.
“We beat our (men’s team)’s practice squad on a Sunday night right before the season started and it was the first time we were able to do it,” Neighbors said. “Now it’s happened four times. I think it’s one of those things you have to experience. I don’t think you can talk about it. That’s something that (started) in a closed-door scrimmage against a bunch of students that volunteered their time for us.”
With the ability to close out games in its arsenal, the team is on pace to finish higher than the No. 11 ranking it received in preseason by the SEC media. Neighbors’ squad now shifts its attention toward the Alabama Crimson Tide (10-9, 2-4), its opponent on Thursday. The Hogs are previewing this conference game differently than past ones, with expectations not many on the current roster have had before; they’re expected to win.
“It’s new for some of these kids,” Neighbors said. “Some of these kids haven’t had this since they were in high school. It takes a new approach. It will change how we feel, there’s no question about it. We’ll see how we handle it.”
Neighbors is still the same Arkansas coach as last year, but the nuances the Hogs bring this season-- experienced players, a better practice regimen, a better in-game mindset-- confirm one thing: this is not the same Razorback team as last year.