March 11, 2019 6:51:08 PM
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The narrative has changed for the Arkansas women's basketball team.
Despite a 101-70 loss to Mississippi State in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference tournament Sunday at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors' thinking has changed from the Women's National Invitation Tournament to the NCAA tournament.
A magical run that saw Arkansas (20-14) become the highest seeded team (No. 10) to advance to the tournament title game ended at the hands of top-seeded MSU (30-2). Tournament MVP Teaira McCowan led five MSU players in double figures with 24 points and 14 rebounds.
Chelsea Dungee led Arkansas with 24 points. In the process, the redshirt sophomore set a tournament record with 103 points. Neighbors hopes wins against Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas A&M have put Arkansas in the discussion for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
"If you can do what we did, now we have three wins over top-25 teams," Neighbors said Sunday. "We didn't have that. Now we do."
Neighbors said he sat in for Florida coach Cameron Newbauer on a NCAA conference call about the NCAA tournament and he didn't have a problem that Arkansas wasn't discussed. He feels that has changed after what his team showed in beating three higher seeds.
"I think our resume stacks up as well as a lot of the other teams that are being talked about," Neighbors said. "I think the narrative has got to have changed. We are a 20-win SEC team. We won nine games within our league. We beat teams that already are certainly in the field. The narrative is going to change a lot. I haven't put out a tweet in about three months for a reason. I have been saving it. Get ready."
Entering the day, Arkansas was No. 66 (up from 81) in the NCAA's Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which is a figure the NCAA tournament selection committee uses as a guide to select the at-large teams to the 64-team field.
Arkansas also was No. 64 in RPI and No. 53 in Strength of Schedule (SOS), according to RealTime RPI. Unfortunately, losses in the final two SEC regular-season games left Arkansas at 6-10 in the league.
Arkansas figures to hold an advantage against Tennessee, which was the No. 8 seed thanks to a 7-9 record in SEC play. The Razorbacks beat the Lady Volunteers 80-79 on Jan. 21 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Tennessee, which has advanced to every NCAA tournament, entered the day at No. 58 in the NCAA's RPI and No. 57 in RPI and No. 34 in SOS in RealTime RPI's rankings.
"That is a heck of a basketball team. Mike and his staff have done an incredible job," MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. "That team is so much better than the one we saw in early January. If that is not an NCAA tournament team I don't know what is."
Prior to the SEC tournament championship game, ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme had Tennessee in a group with Indiana, Buffalo, and Ohio as his last four at-large teams into the NCAA tournament. He had Tennessee as a No. 11 seed. Creme had Butler, TCU, Arkansas, and Virginia Tech as his first four out.
Creme also had MSU as a No. 2 seed paired with No. 1 seed Connecticut in the Albany Regional.
Arkansas' run, which featured an 86-76 victory against Georgia on Thursday, a 95-89 victory against South Carolina on Friday, and a 58-51 victory against Texas A&M on Saturday, also affected LSU, which entered the week in Creme's first four out. LSU dropped to Creme's next four out with Saint Mary's, USC, and West Virginia.
Arkansas received a plug from Texas A&M coach Gary Blair on Saturday night after the Razorbacks upset the No. 3 seed Aggies. The Razorbacks used a 17-0 run in the final 6 minutes, 15 seconds to upset the Aggies. Arkansas trailed by as many as 16 points in the second quarter.
"Arkansas deserves to be in the NCAA tournament," said Blair, who hired Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors away from a high school coaching job to join his coaching staff. "Heck with somebody's computer, OK? If a team is playing that good at the end of the year, reward them. Heck with the 6-10 finish. They were in every ballgame."
Neighbors said Saturday night he hoped the NCAA tournament selection committee would give his team an "honest look." He acknowledged Arkansas lost to Texas A&M with Chennedy Carter in its regular-season finale and then beat the Aggies without Carter in the SEC tournament semifinals. Still, he said his team is playing some of its best basketball at the right time of the season.
"Look at what we've done late," Neighbors said. "I always heard (one of the factors the tournament committee considers is) how you're playing late. Who can you beat in the field? ... I just hope they take an honest look at us and look at the whole body of work and who we've played, what we've done, and what we're doing lately. Regardless of what happens (Sunday), I think we got to be on that board being talked about because of who we've played throughout the year, our non-conference schedule, (which is) exactly what we should have scheduled for being picked 11th in our league."
Creme has seven SEC teams in his NCAA tournament field. That total is second only to the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has eight.
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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