FAYETTEVILLE — It’s elementary, Arkansas women’s basketball fans.
Opening their season Friday morning on Elementary School Day before an attending 4,889 of mostly elementary school students through Northwest Arkansas, second-year coach Mike Neighbors’ Razorbacks in a 98-53 rout of Northwestern State at Walton Arena showed it’s elementary that they are a considerably deeper and more talented team than last season’s 13-18 squad.
With every available player playing and none playing longer than 21 minutes, seven Razorbacks scored in double figures starting with Kiara Williams’ 10 points, nine rebounds near double-double to the game-leading 19 points, 13 in the 56-27 first half, by debuting junior college transfer guard Alexis Tolefree, of Conway.
In between, Razorbacks Taylah Thomas, nine rebounds; Chelsea Dungee and Rokia Doumba, scored 11 points each, senior guard Malica Monk, of North Little Rock, scored 12 and sophomore A’Tyanna Gaulden scored 16.
“Seven people in double figures,” Neighbors said. “I remember doing that only one time in Techmo basketball back on Nintendo. That’s great balance.”
Tolefree, a Conway Wampus Cats alumni and junior transfer from Jones (Mississippi) Community College, Gaulden, redshirted last season as a transfer from Florida State, Dungee, redshirted last season transferring from Oklahoma, and freshman Doumbia all made their Razorbacks debut.
That allowed guards Monk and junior Jailyn Mason (four rebounds and four assists and four points Friday) both exhausted last season averaging 34 and 33 minutes per game, to play fresh for 22 and 19 minutes Friday.
Mason and senior previously starting forward Bailey Zimmerman, 17 minutes, both played off the bench.
So, the depth indeed seemed night and day different over last season’s team.
“That’s the word a lot of people have said, ‘night and day,’” Neighbors said. “To have the confidence of not starting some people who have started and might Wednesday night (Arkansas’ next game at Texas-Arlington), there was no worry about. It’s like everybody knows my time’s coming.
“So the depth is something we’ll continue to cultivate. You can’t talk about depth and then not play people roughly equal minutes. I’m not a coach that has done hockey lineups, five for five (which he did Friday) but I’m also old school enough not to change something that’s working. Quality depth is nice to have.”
And Arkansas has it says, Northwestern State coach Jordan Dupay.
“This is a much better Arkansas team this year with way more options and way more depth,” Dupay said. “Their speed and ability to get to the paint was a huge negative for us trying to defend. Their ability to spread people out and create and take advantage of it is going to hurt a lot of people this year.”
Tolefree set the tone scoring the game’s first points on one of those from a different area code 3-pointers. Her first of 5 in 10 attempts.
“She has always wanted to be a Razorback and we have confidence in her,” Neighbors said. “When you give a kid like that confidence to take the first shot of a season in a game for 25 feet … she stretches the floor and and now A’Tyanna and Mal have much wider driving angles. And you saw her make a couple of nice moves to the basket. She gives the depth of a threat on the perimeter.”
Tolefree relished her Arkansas debut.
“This was what I dreamed of since I was in the seventh grade,” Tolefree said. “Putting that Razorback jersey on is a big deal to me. Every game is going to be me going hard no matter what. We played good as a team and did everything that coach had told us to do in the locker room.”