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Arkansas women brace for No. 1 South Carolina

by Paul Boyd | January 16, 2022 at 2:49 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas women's basketball Coach Mike Neighbors said he believes No. 1 South Carolina is even better than a year ago when it was a whisper away from the NCAA Tournament championship game.

He's had the Gamecocks ranked No. 1 in the country as a voter in the USA Today women's coaches poll most of the season and acknowledged on a Zoom call Friday that you almost have to catch them on an off-night in order to have a chance to beat them.

"They can beat you a lot of different ways," Neighbors said. "There's no scouting report that's going to help you. You've got to be great in all facets and kind of hope you catch them on a night when they're not so great."

Neighbors also said he is hopeful that a big crowd at Walton Arena for today's 2:30 p.m. tip-off will also help his Razorbacks (11-5, 1-2 SEC) against top-ranked South Carolina (16-1, 4-1).

"If we can get the crowd that I think we anticipate having [today], our kids will feel it," Neighbors said. "Those nerves will go away. These kids have all been in big games enough so far I think."

He also acknowledged playing the No. 1 team in the country is different.

"There is a certain difference that comes when the No. 1 team walks in," he added. "They're up, you know, anywhere from eight to 10 points, maybe more if you let it. So we got to diminish that number more, too."

The Gamecocks are led by All American Aliyah Boston, who set a school record with her 10th consecutive double-double in Thursday's win over Texas A&M. Neighbors said the 6-5 junior, who averages a double-double, would likely be a slam-dunk pick for National Player of the Year if the voting happened now.

But South Carolina has more. Depth is something they've added, Neighbors said.

"They can go two-deep at every position," Neighbors said. "People have tried everything against Boston. They've tried to no guard her, tried to double-, triple-team her."

"Victaria Saxton has always been a menace to us. She's is such an amplifier like Rylee [Langerman]. She just makes everybody better. Last year, we decided not to guard Brea Beal very much. She was [SEC] Player of the Week that week with 22. There's no holes."

South Carolina Ccoach Dawn Staley said on a Zoom call Saturday that one of her players was in health and safety protocols and would not be available for today's game, but she did not identify that player. However, she did say the player in protocols was not a starter.

Staley said Neighbors' offensive system is tough to cover defensively, pairing good three-point shooters with players who also will go to the basket aggressively.

"He just puts a lot of pressure on your defense to cover the three and cover up downhill drives," Staley said. "When the floor is as spaced as it is, makes it difficult. You're tempted to go to zone, but they get up 27 threes a game so that's pretty hard when we're not a zone team."

She also said the young Razorbacks appear to be making progress.

"They're growing," Staley said. "They aren't like they were a month ago, so they're moving in the right direction. I'm glad we're getting them now and I'm hoping that after having a week off they haven't put it all together."

Arkansas won't have history on its side facing South Carolina. The Razorbacks have lost 15 out of the past 16 meetings and haven't beaten the Gamecocks in the regular season since 2012. The only win during that run came in the 2019 SEC Tournament.

The Razorbacks have also had no luck facing the top-ranked team in the country either. They are 0-17 all-time against No. 1 teams. The last time was a 90-64 loss to the Gamecocks at Walton Arena on March, 7, 2020.

If the Razorbacks can replicate what they did in an 83-73 win over Missouri a week ago, they have a chance against the Gamecocks, Neighbors said. The Tigers are the only team to defeat the Gamecocks this season.

Arkansas jumped to a 47-30 halftime lead and went on to the big win over the Tigers. The Razorbacks also only turned the ball over twice -- a program record. Sophomore Rylee Langerman also scored a career-best 17 points off the bench, hitting 5 of 6 from three-point range.

"We didn't turn it over," Neighbors said. "You can't turn it over against these guys [South Carolina] especially. Not only is it a wasted trip, but now it's an opportunity for them to run in transition. We play like we did in the first half [against Missouri], I think we're in a good spot."

Neighbors said redshirt junior Erynn Barnum, who has been out for more than a month with a knee injury, could return to full contact in practice next week. Barnum was the team's leading rebounder through the first nine games.

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