BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
When the ship seems to be sinking, the first thing you have to is get your head back above water, keep from drowning and then work on dealing with the rest.
The Arkansas women’s basketball program figuratively did that on Sunday afternoon when it survived in a 54-51 win at Auburn.
The Razorbacks (18-7, 5-5) ended a four-losing streak with the win over the Tigers (13-9, 3-7), who had been victorious their last three contests after losing their first six league outings.
“Xxxxxx, I was as disappointed as any coach that you have very seen for our players,” noted Neighbors, referring to a xx-xx home loss to Ole Miss last Monday. “But on the other side of that, I am so ecstatic, so happy, so thankful and grateful to coach them all.
“They found a way to win one that looked like that it could have gone the other direction like so many of these have. We are going to celebrate this one. That was hard-earned. We had to do a lot of different things tonight. We got in early foul trouble.we had to play some line ups that hadn’t played together much.
“To find a way to win on the road against a streaking Auburn team that’s won three in a row, I am really, really on the other side of how happy (to) how sad I was and how devastated we were the other night, we are that happy today.”
Erynn Barnum had 14 points and 9 rebound for Arkansas while Makayla Daniels had 11 points and Saylor Poffenbarger a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds for the first taste of victory since an 84-81 home win over Vanderbilt on Jan. 16.
“It changes the way the food taste, the plane won’t be late, the pizza will be hot, the cokes will be cold, the water will be cold, my boys will take a nap on the plane, it won’t be bumpy,” Neighbors said. “That’s just the way sports is. I am so thankful that we got a break.
“I said it before the game and you can go back and listen to (radio play-by-play man) Phil (Elson), I said ‘we are do some breaks.’”
That’s not to say that Neighbors believes his team is anywhere near fixed as it won in spite of the fact that it show 26.9 percent from the field (14 of 52), 13 percent from 3-point range (3 of 23), 59 percent from the free throw line (23 of 39) and had 19 turnovers.
The Razorbacks also lost a 15-point lead after going up 24-9 in the second quarter.
“It is a pattern and if we don’t get it fixed,” Neigbors said before his voice trailed off. “… The other thing I will say is this, this game could have been over a long time ago if you don’t miss 16 free throws. Gotta to do better than that. Got to do better than that on the road. I don’t think it is any one thing. I think it all comes together, but we are going to keep searching so new can take advantage of the lead from here on out.”
He certainly was ready to say that Arkansas closed out a game.
I still don’t feel like we really closed it out to be a hundred perfect honest with you,” Neighbors said. “I feel like we just kind of survived it. I am not going to get in here and go all James Naismith on you and tell you we have got everything figured out. We don’t. But we did find a way to win and we did make improvement and that’s what I want so much for this team – just keep finding ways to improve.
“To get back to .500 in this league…it just doesn’t happen very often, to stay around .500. I am glad we are back there.”
Neighbors admitted that his team had heard criticism during the four-game losing skid that included road losses to No. 3 LSU and No. 1 South Carolina and then home losses to Alabama and Ole Miss.
“I try to make them (the players) just aware…there is a quote that you take serious criticism seriously and you criticism from unserious people unseriously. You have got to filter it, you can’t ignore it, you can’t stay away from it, you can’t shelter them,” Neighbors said.
“That is sign that you have arrived from people wanting your job. I am a lifelong Arkansan and my idols in the Arkansas coaching profession have all had people try to run them out. So that makes me feel like I have reached a milestone. I am not anywhere near their status, but we are starting to get there.
“I love the fact…that (criticism came after) we lost to Ole Miss, we lost to Alabama – who are fourth and fifth in our league. I used to get ‘attaboy, you played then close, keep your head up, coach.’ I love that we have flipped that around to where our people expect us to win.
“I say keep coming out and cheering for us and cheering against us. We stick together and we talk about it. That’s how we handle it – we talk about it, we laugh about it, but we know that each other has got each others backs. We give each other the serious criticism and we listen to each other.”
Auburn, who was down 42-32 with 12 seconds left in the quarter, rallied to deadlock the game 51-51 with 51 seconds remaininb on a jumper by Kaitlyn Duhon.
Daniels hit the second of two free throws with 7 seconds left to put the Razorbacks up 52-51 before what looked to be a potential game-changing fifth foul on Poffenbarger occurred on an in-bounds pass in the front court.
After a replay review, referees ruled Poffenbarger’s foul of Jakayla Johnson to be an intentional one.
“…I was confused,” Neighbors said. “I am going to be the first to stand here and admit, and I just told our team, that I thought they were going to get to shoot four free throws because the way it was explained to me was they called a common foul and then an intentional foul.
Johnson, an 85-percent free throw shooter, proceeded to miss both and then Arkansas forced a five-second violation in the inbounds. Daniels connected on two free throws with four seconds left and Auburn missed a game-tying 3-pointer with a second left.
The game was a foul-fest.
“It was so disjointed with 54 fouls and…66 free throws,” Neighbors said. “It couldn’t have been fun to watch. It was 2 hours and 17 minutes. I hope the SEC Network some extra commercials ready.”
Arkansas will return to action at Vanderbilt on Thursday night in an 8 p.m game.