COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Four points separated the University of Arkansas women's basketball team (16-7, 3-7 SEC) and No. 6/7 South Carolina (21-2, 9-1 SEC) when the two first met back in January. While the respective records since then may indicate disparity between the two teams, the Razorbacks still feel they can play with any team in the conference and have their chance to prove just that Sunday.
Makings its first trip back to Columbia, S.C., since Feb. 27, 2012, Arkansas visits Colonial Life Arena again this season after last time losing 53-47 in what was another close contest between the two. The Razorbacks hold a 5-7 all-time record against the Gamecocks in Columbia, including 1-2 under head coach Tom Collen.
“I think we have a fighting chance,” Collen said. “I told the team that I really do believe this team can beat any team in the league. I think we have to play better and to beat South Carolina on the road we’re going to have to play really, really well. But, I think this team is capable of playing really, really well.”
The second meeting this season between Arkansas and South Carolina, the two programs opened Southeastern Conference play at Bud Walton Arena back on Jan. 2 and battled right down to the final handful of possessions before the Gamecocks pulled out a 55-51 win in Fayetteville.
Held to a season-low 55 points in its first meeting with the Razorbacks, South Carolina has averaged 72.2 points per game in conference play since. Not much has changed since then defensively for Arkansas, which continues to lead the SEC and rank second in the NCAA for scoring defense (51.4 ppg).
Now more than halfway through conference play, both Tiffany Mitchell and Aleighsa Welch average double-figure scoring and lead the Gamecocks. In SEC games this season, Mitchell has averaged 15.2 points per game, while Welch has teammate Alaina Coates each average 12.8 ppg.
Mitchell and Welch each recorded double-doubles in the first meeting with Arkansas, out-dueling Jhasmin Bowen in the paint despite the junior team captain recording a career-high 12 rebounds.
That same leadership by example from upperclassmen Bowen, Keira Peak and Calli Berna will be key again as the Razorbacks gear up for a hostile road trip rematch. Peak had one of her better performances this season against the Gamecocks, scoring 14 points on 50 percent shooting and recording three steals. Berna was limited to just one basket, but recorded six assists and three takeaways of her own.
While not known for her scoring this season, plays a crucial role in not only running the offense but also in deciding the outcome of games. The Lieberman Award candidate leads the SEC and is second in the NCAA with 169 assists this season, averaging a league-leading 7.3 dimes per game. Arkansas is 11-0 in games this season when Berna has dished out eight or more assists.
A front-running candidate for SEC Freshman of the Year, the stage is set for Jessica Jackson to rise to the occasion and give Arkansas the performance it needs to hang with one of the top teams in the country. The Jacksonville, Ark., native had 14 points and five rebounds in her last meeting with South Carolina, and has been on an offensive tear since. Jackson has totaled 13 or more points in 13 of the last 14 games, including 20+ in four of her last eight outings.
It will take a collective, group effort to have a chance at any potential road upset bid by the Razorbacks. The bench play of Arkansas showed just how big an impact it can have on a game during the team’s recent home matchup against Florida. Led by Kelsey Brooks scoring 15 points and snatching a career-high seven steals, UA earned a 55-49 victory over UF.
“Kelsey Brooks was great on the defensive end and hit three 3-pointers for us,” Collen said. “Those are the players that were making 3-pointers for us earlier in the season and when they’re making those shots it opens things up and takes a little bit of pressure off of us.”
Arkansas is 14-1 this season when its bench outscores the reserves of the opposition.
The last time the Razorbacks defeated a ranked team on the road was in a 73-71 overtime win at No. 6/7 Tennessee on Feb. 23, 2012. UA hasn’t defeated a ranked team since downing No. 17 Kansas 64-56 at Bud Walton Arena on Dec. 6, 2012.
Arkansas and No. 6/7 South Carolina are scheduled to tip off 1 p.m. Sunday inside Colonial Life Arena. The game will be televised on SEC TV and ESPN3.
The game will air in Northwest Arkansas on KOSM-FM 92.1; in Rogers on KURM-AM 790; in Fort Smith on KFPW-FM 94.5 and 1230 AM; and in Little Rock on KREB-FM 103.7.
For more information on Arkansas women’s basketball, follow @RazorbackWBB on Twitter.