Women’s basketball has been a part of the fabric of the University of Arkansas for almost a century. Teams of female students took to outdoor courts and peach baskets just after the turn of the century. While the women waited until 1976 for the first varsity team to officially represent the University, these early photos show how the game captured what was then deemed “the fairer sex” in action.
THE FIRST TEAM
As the photo at right illustrates, almost since the turn of the century, women have banded together to play basketball at the University of Arkansas. In fact, yearbook references to women’s basketball predate men’s basketball at Arkansas. There are photographs of at least three teams of women’s basketball players prior to 1910. From the 1930s until the late 1950s, some of the nation’s best AAU players and teams came from the state of Arkansas. After years of “extramural” women’s basketball in the late 1960s and early 1970s at the University, the first varsity Razorback basketball team took the court in Barnhill Arena in 1976-77. Under Coach Sharon Ogle, these Razorbacks established the winning tradition at Arkansas with a 10-6 season. Composed of walk-ons, the 1976-77 team was undefeated in Barnhill Arena (6-0) and set a school record for largest margin of victory that may never be broken—79 points— with a 108-29 win over Bartlesville Wesleyan. Three walk-ons received aid to become the first scholarship women at Arkansas: Camille Yancey of Marvel, Pat Keck from Rogers, and Carol Ann Riggs of Fayetteville.
IN THE BROYLES TRADITION
The next season, the University of Arkansas awarded its first women’s athletic scholarship to a freshman recruit. A local basketball star at Fayetteville High, Betsy Broyles, became the first Razorback high school recruit, one of 10 women recruited during the 1977-78 season. Wearing No. 30 for Arkansas, Betsy, daughter of former athletic director Frank Broyles, had her playing career cut short by an injury, but she did letter two seasons at Arkansas.
ARKANSAS’ FIRST SUPERSTAR
Wynne, Arkansas’, Bettye Fiscus arrived at the University in 1981, and Razorback basketball was never the same. Fiscus set the University record for scoring—man or woman—at 2,073 as Arkansas’ first All-American. While NBA star Todd Day finally broke Fiscus’ scoring mark, she still holds almost all the women’s basketball career scoring records. Her jersey—No. 5—was the first retired by the University, receiving that honor in 1986.
FIRST NATIONAL CHAMPIONS
A senior-laden Razorback club that had advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 1986 received the snub of the committee in 1987. Behind co-captain guard Tracy Webb, the 1986-87 team wrecked its vengeance on the National Women’s Invitational Tournament, sweeping through the postseason tournament to bring home the first team national title for a women’s squad at Arkansas. Arkansas averaged over 100 points per game for the tournament, crushing California, 112-80, in the championship game.
“DIALING” FOR TROPHIES
Arkansas and the Dial Soap Women’s Basketball Classic series had a long, distinguished history. The Dial Classics were the longest-running series in women’s hoops. Arkansas had the unofficial distinction of winning more Dial trophies than any team starting in Minnesota. In fact, the Razorbacks played in eight different Dial tournaments in eight seasons, winning trophies in six. This past record combined with increasing promotions led to Arkansas receiving the right to host one of the coveted tournaments, bringing the Dial series to Fayetteville in 1991 (photo above) until the series was disbanded in 1997.
THE SHOTS HEARD ‘ROUND THE WORLD
On Feb. 23, 1990, Arkansas ended the longest conference winning streak in NCAA history by defeating the Texas Lady Longhorns, 82-77. The win broke UT’s 183-game streak against Southwest Conference foes, and cleared the way for the first non-Texas SWC women’s basketball titlist. It also ended the nation’s longest active home win streak at 47 games. Senior guard Juliet Jackson, who hit six free throws in the closing minute to clinch the game, summed it up best: “We messed up all their streaks.” The next week junior center Delmonica DeHorney was named Sports Illustrated women’s college basketball player of the week.
ONLY SWC WOMEN’S TROPHIES OUTSIDE THE LONE STAR STATE
Arkansas was the first team to beat Texas and the first team to win a share, then later an outright, Southwest Conference championship besides the Lady Longhorns. In 1991, Arkansas also ended the Lone Star state’s dominance of the SWC tournament by defeating Texas Tech for the title. These three trophies—the 1990 and 1991 SWC Championship and 1991 SWC Classic—are the only women’s basketball trophies in captivity outside the state of Texas.
DELMONICA DEHORNEY, ALL-AMERICAN
While Delmonica DeHorney may have several notable seconds in her resume— second Razorback player to have her jersey (50) retired, second Razorback to play professional basketball, second all-time leading scorer (1,785)—she claims one of the most significant firsts: the first Kodak All-American at the University of Arkansas. DeHorney also is in the record books as the all-time leader in field goal percentage and blocked shots for a career. Her domination in the paint carried Arkansas to the 1990 NCAA West Regional Finals and to the 1991 NCAA Sweet 16. A two-time SWC Player of the Year, Delmonica is the only women’s basketball player in SWC history to earn three conference honors. She was SWC Newcomer of the Year as a freshman. DeHorney was inducted into the UA Hall of Honor in 2000.
BARNHILL CROWDS TO REMEMBER
Beginning with the 1989-90 season, the Razorbacks declared W.A.R. (Women’s Attendance Record) on a select opponent. The first two W.A.R.s were against Texas, and resulted in the two largest crowds at Barnhill for a women’s basketball game. Upon entering the SEC, Arkansas had a Border W.A.R. with LSU. W.A.R. IV featured the 24th-ranked Kentucky Lady Kats. Arkansas’ feared home crowd worked its Barnhill magic in the last three W.A.R.s. The last two years were particularly dramatic as the Razorback fans rallied Arkansas from halftime deficits.
AN ALL-AMERICAN BY EVERY MEASURE
No other point guard in Arkansas history had a career that can match Newark’s Amber Nicholas. In her four years, she never missed a game, playing 117 consecutive games, and she set the record for the most consecutive games started: 87. Nicholas set the school record for career assists, and her steady hand guided Arkansas to the best record of any four year period in school history. Named the MVP of the 1991 SWC Tournament, Nicholas also earned three Dial MVP awards in consecutive seasons. One of the most beloved Razorbacks, Nicholas also was a two-time selection to the highly prestigious CoSIDA Academic All-America team and received an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship. She was inducted into the Hall of Honor in 2002.
THE NATION COMES TO FAYETTEVILLE
At the end of the 1993-94 season, the University of Arkansas Women’s Athletics Department hosted the first major NCAA championship event held in the state of Arkansas. The 1994 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Mideast Regional set marks for regional attendance and hospitality. A true community project, one of the highlights was a street party and battle of the bands on the downtown square called Fayetteville Friday Night for the two teams in Saturday’s championship game. Louisiana Tech advanced from Fayetteville to the Final Four with upsets of No. 1-ranked Tennessee and Lisa Leslie’s USC Trojans.
A MOMENT IN TIME
As the Razorbacks prepared to move to Bud Walton Arena in December 1993, the Women’s Athletics Department held a celebration of 17 years of women’s hoops in Barnhill Arena with “A Moment in Time.” The banquet held in Barnhill was attended by dozens of former Razorbacks, including three of the four career leaders. A special retrospective video tracing the Razorbacks and their winning tradition in Barnhill was screened as a part of the festivities.
THE CARDIAC KIDS
The 1994-95 season saw the Razorbacks return to the Associated Press Top 25 and the NCAA tournament, posting a 23-7 record. Arkansas did it by winning nine games in the closing minute, three games on last shots, with a team composed mostly of freshmen and sophomores.
A STREAK UNEQUALED
The first freshman recruit to start opening day at point guard for Arkansas, Christy Smith earned attention for her free throw shooting—89.9% to lead the nation—and her tenacious defense—leading the SEC in steals with 3.0 per game. But on Dec. 6, 1995, Smith took her first step toward a mark that might stand for all time. The 5-6 West Lafayette, Ind., point guard started that night against Alabama, and did not leave the court against a SEC opponent for the rest of the season. For all 11 regular season games and two SEC tournament games, Smith played 525 consecutive minutes—a feat unequaled by man or woman in the league. The 1995 SEC Freshman of the Year, Smith also became Arkansas’ first woman named to the Associated Press All-America team as an honorable mention.
A PRESIDENTIAL VISIT
Usually, the national champion visits the President of the United States in the White House. On Dec. 9, 1996, President Bill Clinton visited the women’s basketball team in their locker room during halftime of the men’s game with Cincinnati. It may be the first time a sitting President has dropped in to the locker room of a collegiate women’s basketball team, and as luck would have it, it was not the last time the Razorbacks posed with the President.
DREAMS DO COME TRUE
On March 9, 1998, the Razorbacks wanted to get back into the NCAA Tournament. By March 27, 1998, they were in the NCAA Final Four, living the dream they had wished for years. Arkansas made NCAA Tournament history as the lowest seed — #9 in the West — to advance to the Final Four. They were the first unranked team in women’s basketball history during the modern era to reach the Final Four. And, they were the lowest finishing team in conference play — tied for sixth in the SEC — to reach the Final Four. Arkansas did it all on the west coast, spending two whole weeks in the Bay Area. Along the way, the Razorbacks beat four conference champions — WAC, Pacific, Ivy and ACC — and three ranked teams — Hawai’i, Kansas and Duke — to face conference rival Tennessee at Kansas City.
Arkansas played all four of its pre-Final Four games on late night TV, earning the nickname of Good Morning America’s team. Every member of the team contributed to the run, starting with a 24-point effort by Karyn Karlin in the opening round win over #20 Hawai’i, 76-70. Then it was freshman Wendi Willits’ turn with a near-NCAA record six three-pointers to blow open Arkansas’ second round contest with Harvard, 82-64. In the opening round games held at Stanford, Calif., Christy Smith had zero turnovers and 16 assists.
At the West Regionals in Oakland, junior Sytia Messer stepped to the front as Arkansas’ leading scorer in both wins, earning herself the honor as the most outstanding player at the West Regional. Messer had 23 points as Arkansas used an impressive 54-point second half to dispatch Kansas, 79-63, in the Sweet 16. Fellow junior Treva Christensen announced herself with 14 points off the bench against Duke to earn all-tournament selection. Junior Tennille Adams was 6-of-9 with 14 off the bench including the go-ahead bucket in the closing minutes against Duke. The defining moment belonged to Smith, as she calmly sank four free throws in the final seconds to send Arkansas to the Final Four for the first time with a 77-72 win over ACC champion Duke.
FIVE GAMES TO GLORY
When the 1999 season ended, Arkansas was 15-14 and 11th in the SEC. Leading scorer Karyn Karlin was out for the year with a torn ACL. Not the ending Cinderella hoped for after the Final Four. But Arkansas got a second chance with the WNIT, and by virtue of its season attendance was chosen to host the opener with SLC champion Northwestern State. Sophomore Lonniya Bragg, quiet most of the season, tore into NSU for a career-tying 22 points. Arena conflicts helped Arkansas host round two, and a late-season snowstorm led to the smallest crowd at Bud Walton for women’s basketball (890). Those that braved the weather saw a sophomore class record 35 points as Okie Wendi Willits busted the Sooners in an overtime thriller, 97-93. The crowds began to pour back into Bud Walton, and Arkansas survived Rice, 76-70, in the quarterfinals thanks to 18 from Bragg. The WNIT picked Arkansas to host again, and the crowd and the Razorbacks did not disappoint as 9,041 saw 5-11 Bragg rack up a career-high 23 against the 6-5 and 6-4 posts of MVC runner-up Drake in a 80-56 rout. It set the stage for a titanic showdown at Walton with Wisconsin. An all-time record 14,163 paid to see Arkansas win the title behind an inspired senior performance from Kamara Stancle with 15 points and 13 rebounds. The victory was marred by the sudden illness and death of Sytia Messer’s mother on the eve of the game.
AMERICA’S BEST THREE-POINT SHOOTER
Wendi Willits shattered all of Arkansas’ three-point records during the 1998-99 season. More impressive, the 5-8 Fort Cobb, Okla., sophomore came within a single trey of breaking a previously thought unbreakable SEC record — Cornelia Gayden’s single season mark. Willits finished with 104, shooting 35.7% from the arc. Ranking top five in the nation in both percentage and production, Willits was chosen by the Basketball Hall of Fame as its Ed Steitz Award winner. Her uniform, complete with her trademark headband, was displayed for the 1999-2000 season at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Her senior year, she became the No. 2 three-point scorer in SEC history as well as the all-time leader at Arkansas. Willits closed her career at the ESPN College Three-Point Shooting Contest, where she reached the Final Four.
DROPPING DIMES FOR RECORDS
Point guard Amy Wright started the second century of Razorback basketball by shattering a once-thought-untouchable record of 186 assists in a season set by Donna Wilson in 1989. Wright’s 198 led Arkansas back into the NCAA Tournament second round in 2001, and left her in striking distance for her senior season of the all-time leader, Amber Nicholas Shirey. For her final season, Wright not only took the career record early on, but she broke her own season mark to become the first woman to go over 200 in a season with 205 and close her career with 717.
SECOND TO ONE, BUT SECOND TO NONE
Hot Springs, Ark., native Shameka Christon finished her four-year career at Arkansas as the first woman to threaten the all-time scoring mark of Bettye Fiscus and ended up second all-time with 1,951 points. However, in many ways Christon was second to none in her Arkansas career with many firsts. Early in her career Christon became the first Razorback women’s basketball player to represent the United States at the World Championships and the first to win a gold medal on the world stage. As a senior, she was the first Razorback named Associated Press All-America with her selection to the third team, surpassing Christy Smith’s four times on the AP team, but as an honorable mention. Christon also became the first voted SEC Player of the Year (both coaches and AP), making her the second Razorback to take player of the year (Delmonica DeHorney in the SWC days). She closed out her time in Fayetteville by becoming the first Razorback taken as a first-round draft pick of the WNBA, going fifth overall to the New York Liberty. Christon added another first as the first Razorback to make an all-pro team as she was on the WNBA’s Rookie Team in 2004.
IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES…
IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES
Tom Collen returned as the head coach for the Arkansas women’s basketball team in April 2007. Inheriting a team that had set the standard for best start to the first loss with a 15-1 run before setting the standard for futility with a 10-game losing streak, Collen had no expectations of another streak against a schedule including key road contests. After the first win in several years at Missouri, Arkansas came home to face Clemson — the first ACC team in Walton Arena. Downing the Tigers, the Razorbacks faced the toughest test with NCAA participant Marquette in the finals of the Dartmouth tournament. Trailing by eight, Arkansas rallied for a two-point win. Riding a 14-game streak, the Razorbacks pummelled former SWC rival Texas Tech to close out the pre-conference schedule perfect. The 15-0 start broke the in-season winning streak of the 1990-91 SWC Championship team that set the school record for wins and percentage with a 28-4 finish. The 15 straight games also bested the 11-game run to close the 1998-99 and start the 1999-2000 season. Behind senior double-double averaging post player Lauren Ervin, Arkansas looked ready to vault its top 25 AP ranking back into the NCAA Tournament. Fate had different plans as Ervin tore her ACL in the SEC opener, ending her career as the second all-time double-double points-rebound player. The Razorbacks suffered several other injuries and stumbled to a 2-13 close.
On Jan. 1, 2008, the University of Arkansas brought together the men’s and women’s athletic departments. Starting with the new fiscal year in July 1, 2008, the women’s sports teams dropped the usage of “Lady” and “Lady’Back” nicknames.
The Razorbacks returned to the NCAA Tournament reaching the second round before elimination in 2011-12. The team that bumped them? New SEC member Texas A&M. Arkansas and the 12-member SEC began preparation for the addition of the Aggies and Missouri moving the SEC to 14 teams for the 2012-13 season.
In April 2014, Arkansas welcomed its eighth head coach in program history with the hiring of former ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes. In his first year, Dykes was handcuffed with just nine players on his roster and faced the daunting task of playing one of the nation’s toughest (ranked sixth) schedules. What did the first-year coach and the Razorbacks do? They won 18 games, defeated three ranked opponents and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Along the way, sophomore Jessica Jackson picked up All-SEC Second-Team honors and Dykes earned the respect of his peers and was named one of two finalists for the Spalding Maggie Dixon Division I Rookie Coach of the Year.