Razorback women start WNIT run tonight


FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas women’s basketball team is disappointed it didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament field for the second straight season.

But guard Calli Berna said the Razorbacks can’t dwell on it now.

The only thing Arkansas can do is concentrate on the next best thing.

“We are very excited to get the chance to be in this tournament,” Berna said. “We want to win it. We don’t think there is any reason we shouldn’t be able to win it.”

Arkansas (19-12) will try to take the first step toward that goal tonight, when it opens WNIT play against Memphis (17-14) in Bud Walton Arena at 7 p.m.

It begins what the Razorbacks hope will become a six-game journey to the program’s second WNIT after winning the championship in 1999.

Arkansas coach Tom Collen said his team won’t have an easy path, but believes the Razorbacks weren’t far from landing one of the final spots in the NCAA Tournament field. Arkansas went 1-7 in games against ranked opponents and seven of its 12 losses also came by six points or less. So Collen wants the Razorbacks to look like they were NCAA Tournament worthy as they compete in the WNIT.

“I’ve said this many times before, how much I like this team, how close we were to getting to the NCAA,” Collen said. “I believe we were a team that if we had gotten into the NCAA, we had a great opportunity to advance. But that doesn’t mean much at this time of year. Now we’re in the NIT, so we have to prove that we’re that good.”

Collen called Arkansas’ portion of the bracket “tough” and said Memphis could prove to be a difficult first-round draw. The winner will advance to play the Sam Houston State-Tulane winner at a date and location to be determined.

The Tigers finished 8-8 in Conference USA, but Collen said they endured some struggles in December because of an injury to point guard Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir. But she is healthy now and averages 10.6 points and 3.3 rebounds. Memphis also is led by forward Nicole Dickson (18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game).

“They’re healthy now,” Collen said. “They’re extremely athletic. They’re going to come here and probably try and turn us over. They want to get up and down the floor. So this should be a great game for our fans.”

Arkansas is playing in the WNIT for the sixth time and carries a 13-4 record into the 2013 tournament. The Razorbacks reached the quarterfinals in their last trip under Collen in 2011, using the success as a springboard to the 2011-12 season which ended with an appearance in the second round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

Forward Sarah Watkins said success this time can have the same impact on the program although she won’t be around to experience it next season.

Watkins is one of three seniors playing their final games with the Razorbacks, joining guard Erin Gatling and forward Quistelle Williams. So she said there is plenty of incentive to win and advance in the WNIT beginning tonight.

“I don’t want it to be my last game against Memphis,” Watkins said. “And I don’t want it to be my last game against the team after that or the team after that. So the goal right now is just to win out and not play the last game yet.”

Ultimately, Watkins and the rest of the Razorbacks hope it leads to a championship.

The Razorbacks didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament field, but believe there’s still something to play for when they open WNIT play against Memphis tonight.

“It would be nice to have a banner up here or something,” Watkins said.