FAYETTEVILLE — The NCAA Women’ Basketball Tournament Selection show they never saw last year when they expected their name to be called answered the Arkansas Razorbacks’ calling Monday night.
His 24-8 team denied the NCAA Tournament last season as everyone was with the tournament and all ongoing 2020 sports cancelled last mid March because of the covid-19 pandemic’s United States outbreak, Coach Mike Neighbors.’19-8 Razorbacks, 9-6 in the powerful SEC and with nonconference victories over AP No. 1 ranked UConn and No. 6 Baylor, were announced Monday night in the 64-team tournament in San Antonio and vicinity as their bracket’s fourth seed.
They play the 13th-seeded Horizon League Tournament champion 18-7 Wright State Raiders of Dayton, Ohio in a 1 p.m. ESPN televised first-round game at the University of Texas’ Frank Erwin Center in Austin.
“Just always fun to see your name,” Neighbors said Monday night. “You have nightmares the night before that something happens and there’s a mistake. Fun to see the excitement on the kids’ faces. And to see that name go across as the fourth seed, just proud of these kids.”
The Arkansas vs. Wright State winner in Wednesday’s second round plays the 6:30 Monday night winner of sixth-seeded Missouri State vs. 11th-seeded California-Davis to be played in San Antonio.
Neighbors was accustomed to NCAA Tournaments as the University of Washington coach taking the Huskies to the Final Four.
But as a UA grad and Greenwood native coming home, Neighbors inherited 2-14 in the SEC team under predecessor Jimmy Dykes.
Neighbors reprogrammed the 2017-2018 Razorbacks through a 13-18 overall/3-13 in the SEC first year building to a 22-15 2018-2019 team that went three rounds deep into the WNIT through n last season’s should have been NCAA Tournament team to this one dancing in the Big Dance.
All who stuck with the program are part of this tournament team wherever they are in Neighbors’ view.
“Just a validation for a lot of these kids who decided to come to school here before NCAA Tournaments were a thing for us,” Neighbors said. “And now to see that name go across there as a four seed.”
Fifth-year senior guard Jailyn Mason, now considering herself lucky to be injured and redshirting last season preserving her eligibility for this season’s NCAA Tournament, was on that struggling team before Neighbors’ arrival. She was asked Monday about sticking through the Neighbors regime bound to struggle again its first year.
“You know everybody jokes about when I sat down with Coach Neighbors with my laptop,” Mason said. “It’s very true I had an insider list of questions. But from there we established that relationship and confidence in one another that we would be able to build this program into where it is. So to be able to be (seeded) fourth in this NCAA Tournament and have it blossom is amazing and bring this program back to where it was once before is amazing.”
Ironically, Wright State assistant coach Tennille Adams was on Arkansas’ peak women’s team as a starter on the 1998 Final Four team under Gary Blair for whom Neighbors later served as an administrative assistant.
“I am very familiar with Tennille,” Neighbors said. “She was around when I was working (Arkansas) camps. We’ve crossed paths many times recruiting. She is a Razorback legend and I have stayed connected and I’m also close to their head coach (Katrina Merriweather). They and their program have our utmost respect and attention.”
As a native of Mason, Ohio, Jailyn Mason has some familiarity with Dayton based Wright State.
“Wright State is pretty much down the road from where I grew up,”Mason said. “So it’s fun to see that we’re going to play somebody that’s close to home. I have a friend that plays there. Just really excited to be in this position.”
While Mason talked of the “sheer joy” of going to the NCAA Tournament it wasn’t lost on Neighbors and Mason that their last game was a disappointing one and done SEC Tournament loss to and Ole Miss team that Arkansas defeated during the SEC regular season.
“We were obviously very disappointed losing to Ole Miss,” Mason said. “Especially beating them already in the regular conference. So we’re going to come in with a chip on our shoulder. We have it against these other teams that might look down on us because we did lose to a team that’s not going to be there (in the NCAA Tourney). So we are going to be working hard.”
Neighbors noted character building defeats now cease.
“You can lose a game and say, ‘It helped us,” Neighbors said. “There’s no such thing as that in the NCAA Tournament. You lose for whatever reason they are sending you back as soon as they can and you’re turning your stuff in and planning your senior banquet.”