FAYETTEVILLE – The 23rd-ranked University of Arkansas women’s basketball team opens Southeastern Conference play at Auburn in a 6 p.m. tip Thursday.
The Razorbacks are 12-1 and moved up two spots in this week’s Associated Press poll to the No. 23 spot. Auburn enters the game with a new coach, new look and an 11-2 mark on the year in the league opener for both teams.
“We want to go out and get a win right out of the gate,” said Razorback senior Sarah Watkins
. “It is the first SEC game of the year and we are really focused. We know that they are probably going to press hard and they have some length at the point guard spot so we can’t throw over their press. We have to be ready to go from the tip.”
Arkansas has been good in the non-conference part of the schedule. The Razorbacks have won nine in a row with the lone loss coming at the hands of No. 13 Oklahoma by just three points in Hawai’i. The Razorbacks also have a big win over No. 17 Kansas in Bud Walton that helped move the team into the top 25.
“The ranking is nice but we really haven’t put much thought into that,” Watkins said. “We know that we have to prove ourselves in every game in the SEC because the conference is so good.”
Watkins has been the go-to player for the Razorbacks in recent games. A starter at the beginning of the year, early foul trouble in games moved Watkins to the bench. She leads the team with 13.5 points per game for the season but jumps to 16.2 ppg since coming in off the bench.
Auburn comes in with a new head coach in Terri Williams-Flournoy, previously of Georgetown. Williams-Flournoy has 11 wins under her belt with the Tigers and rides an eight game winning streak into Thursday’s contest.
“We know we are going to have to step it up a notch,” Arkansas head coach Tom Collen
said. “Every team we play will challenge us and we are excited to start SEC play. I think Auburn has shown that they can be an NCAA Tournament team at the end of the year. They have five returning starters and are as good as a lot of ranked teams right now. They will change presses and zones against us and try to turn us over to score easy layups. We have to take care of the ball and knock down shots early.”
The Razorbacks have had good balance through the first half of the season. Seven different players have led the team in scoring and rebounding forcing opponents to prepare for the several options that the Razorbacks have. Junior Keira Peak
continues to play well averaging 13.4 ppg and leading the team with 6.8 rpg. Senior Quistelle Williams
averages 10.3 ppg and 6.7 rpg this year as well.
Sophomore point guard Calli Berna
has gone through the SEC season as a freshman last year and ranks among the nation’s leaders in assists and assist/turnover ratios.
Arkansas and Auburn are pretty evenly matched. The Razorbacks average 76.6 ppg as a team and 41.6 rpg this season while the Tigers check in with 72.3 ppg and 40.5 rpg. The Tigers, however, average 13.3 steals per game to Arkansas’ 10.6 and have a +7.4 turnover margin, something the Razorbacks are preparing for.
“I don’t think this will be a high scoring game,” Collen said. “Our goal is to go in there and have eight-to-10 turnovers and hold them to a low point total. If we can do that, we will have a chance to steal one on the road.”
Arkansas returns to Bud Walton Arena with the SEC home opener against No. 24 Texas A&M Sunday, Jan. 6 at 2 p.m. The game will be televised by FSN.