SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors had confidence when going home that the Razorbacks could be an NCAA Tournament team again, though he didn’t have much of a recruiting pitch then for Chelsea Dungee.
“Faith is believing with lack of evidence. And we have kids that had faith in us because we did not have a lot of evidence to spread around that Chelsea should come here,” Neighbors said. “Guess what, we’re going to be picked 14th in the league. … When you get here, we’re going to load you up and it’s going to be incredibly hard.”
Led by SEC scoring leader and third-team AP All-American Dungee and San Antonio native Amber Ramirez, her former AAU teammate and another transfer, the Razorbacks (19-8) are in their first NCAA Tournament since 2015. It is Neighbors’ fourth season at his alma mater since a Final Four and another Sweet 16 in four seasons at Washington.
Arkansas is the No. 4 seed in the Alamo Region, with Stanford and Louisville the top two seeds. It is the 34th NCAA appearance for both Stanford and third-seeded Georgia, second only to Tennessee making all 39 NCAA Tournaments.
Stanford (25-2) has its first No. 1 seed since 2013 for what is Tara VanDerveer’s record 35th NCAA Tournament for a coach and 33rd in a row for the Cardinal. They open Sunday night in the Alamodome against NCAA first-timer Utah Valley (13-6), the WAC runner-up in with unbeaten California Baptist not yet eligible for the NCAA Tournament while making the transition from Division II.
The Razorbacks, who play Monday against Horizon League champion Wright State (18-7), have been tested by tournament teams all season. They beat both UConn and Baylor, the top two seeds in the River Walk Region, as well as Wake Forest and Florida Gulf Coast. They also played Maryland and are among seven SEC teams in the NCAA field.
Dungee, with 2,120 career points and averaging 22.2 a game this season, had to sit out Neighbors’ first season at Arkansas in 2017-18 after transferring from Oklahoma. Ramirez had to redshirt the following year after coming from TCU.
The Razorbacks had lost four of five games before a hastily added January game against UConn. They are 8-2 since, including that 90-87 win.
“Somebody said it early in the year really well. This is a team that could lose in the first round or a team that can win, and could go really deep,” Neighbors said. “We’ve just got to make sure that we’re that second team.”
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA NEIGHBORS
VanDerveer has mentored Jennifer Gross and even leaned on the mid-major coach from UC Davis three years ago to help install the Princeton offense at Stanford.
VanDerveer hardly expected to see her Northern California neighbor and Gross’ Big West champion Aggies in the same region, given the structure of this year’s NCAA Tournament not featuring host schools. UC Davis (13-2), the No. 12 seed in the Alamo Region, plays Missouri State (21-5) on Monday night.
“I’m really surprised that there was not more moving around of teams this year,” said VanDerveer, who in December passed the late Pat Summitt to become the all-time winningest coach in women’s basketball. “With the opportunity of everyone coming to the same place why not move Davis to play against East Coast teams and East Coast teams against us? That’s the one biggest thing that surprised me about the whole bracket.”
Stanford and UC Davis, separated by about 100 miles, played in the first round of the 2018 Tournament. The schools’ scheduled Dec. 11 game got canceled — one of 13 consecutive games knocked off the Aggies’ schedule following their season opener Nov. 25 through mid-January.
NOT AT HOME
Northwestern was set to host the first two rounds last season before the NCAA Tournament was canceled because of the pandemic. The Wildcats (15-8) instead will make their first NCAA appearance since 2014-15 as a No. 7 seed taking on UCF.
Coach Joe McKeown said his players have a chip on their shoulders wanting to prove how good they were last year (26-4).
“Obviously we were ready for it last year,” said junior guard Veronica Burton, Northwestern’s leading scorer at 16.9 points a game. “But just to finally be here, to finally see your work pay off, I think there’ll be a lot of emotions. But we’ll be excited and we’ll use them to our advantage.”
PAST FINAL FOURS
The Alamo Region has teams that were part of the last three Final Fours. None made it to the championship game.
Oregon was part of the last Final Four in 2019, while Louisville made it in 2018 and Stanford in 2017.
The sixth-seeded Ducks (13-8) have lost five of their last six games, and likely will still be without injured point guard Te-Hina Paopao against South Dakota (19-5).
Louisville (23-3), a No. 1 seed the last two tournaments, has never lost a first-round game in 11 appearances under coach Jeff Walz. The Cardinals, with AP All-American guard Dana Evans, a freshman on their Final Four team three years ago, play Marist (18-3) on Monday.
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.
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