FAYETTEVILLE – The coronavirus caused cancellation last Thursday of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament deprived the Arkansas Razorbacks the at large berth they officially would have been awarded Monday.
But for this and all future years, his 2019-2020 Razorbacks will officially be recognized in University of Arkansas records as a NCAA Tournament team, Arkansas Women’s Coach Mike Neighbors said.
“We’ll still have that,” Neighbors said last Thursday as the foreseen official cancelation of the NCAA Women’s Tournament that was to start this week loomed just hours away. “We’ll list this year as a NCAA qualifier and there’s not going to be an asterisk. I can tell you that. There’s no such thing as an asterisk for that.”
By Friday a national emergency was declared trying to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The seasons ongoing and 2020 spring seasons for all collegiate and professional team sports were canceled or suspended.
Obviously on a scale of our country and the world trying to control a deadly virus, the disappointment of a basketball team amounts to a thimble of fresh water deposited in an ocean immediately engulfed without a trace.
Greenwood native Neighbors said his team understands all that. He complimented SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey’s decision that canceled the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament last Thursday after two games were played Wednesday night and then put all SEC sports on the shelf.
But telling a team it couldn’t go to the Big Dance that none of his players had ever been still wasn’t easy for Arkansas’ third-year coach.
“While I am disappointed in the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament, I am glad there are preventative measures being put in place to combat this ever-changing public health threat,” Neighbors said. “With that said, I am devastated for our team, and especially our seniors (2-year junior college transfer guard Alexis Tolefree of Conway and 4-year letter-winner center Kiara Williams of Little Rock Central). This team worked so hard to get to this point, and an NCAA berth meant so much to this program this year. My heart goes out to them, and I just want to thank Kiara Williams and Alexis Tolefree for their hard work since joining this program. You both will be Razorbacks for life, and this program doesn’t get back to the tournament without your contributions on and off the court.”
There is a chance Tolefree and Williams could return for 2020-2021. The NCAA is discussing restoring the eligibility of seniors in the sports with championships cancelled in March such as men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s track, whose teams were already assembled in Albuquerque, N.M.at the NCAA Indoor Track Championships site last Thursday when the meet scheduled for last Friday and Saturday was canceled.
Even if that doesn’t work out, like Neighbors said, this 24-8 nationally No, 24 team that finished tied for program’s best 10 SEC wins (10-6 to tie Texas A&M, Kentucky and Tennessee for third) and its seniors finish with no asterisk. They assuredly would have been a NCAA Tournament team after a SEC Tournament two weeks ago in Greenville, S.C. routing Auburn and rallying from down 17 to beat nationally 15th-ranked Texas A&M before losing in the quarterfinals to nationally No. 1 SEC regular season/SEC Tournament champion South Carolina.
For Williams, recalling her unhappy freshman season on the 2-14 SEC team of former /Arkansas Coach Jimmy Dykes, and the growth that she and the Razorbacks experienced these last three years, knowing Arkansas would be in this NCAA Tournament that wasn’t, is enough.
Asked before the cancellation became official about the Razorbacks’ NCAA Tournament goals, Williams replied, “We have a goal as a team and the goal is to make it to the Sweet Sixteen and I think we can do it. But if we happen to fall short we’re all going to be fine with where we are and how far we came.”
They came all the way to where they wanted to go even if it wasn’t there when they arrived.