FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Tom Collen was concerned about his team’s first-round draw in the Women’s Invitational Tournament.
The Razorbacks showed their coach he had nothing to worry about – except for a five-minute stretch in the second half – on Thursday night.
Arkansas beat Memphis 67-57 in their first-round game of the WNIT in front of an announced crowd of 1,145 in Bud Walton Arena. Guard Dominique Wilson scored a game-high team-high 15 points to help Arkansas build as much as a 20-point lead, then Quistelle Williams made a key 3-pointer to help the Razorbacks (20-12) hold off a late charge by the Tigers (17-15) and pick up the win.
It helped Arkansas improve to 6-0 in WNIT first-round games in the program’s history. The Razorbacks move on to play Tulane, which beat Sam Houston State 65-57 on Thursday, in the second-round on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Bud Walton Arena.
“There have been times when we’ve let the lead slip away in the past,” Collen said. “So you’ve got to pat them on the back and be happy we won, be happy we’re advancing, be happy we’re playing at home in the next round.”
Wilson, a freshman, played a big role by turning in one of her best performances of the season. She went 6-for-7 from the field and 3-for-4 behind the 3-point line. The freshman scored 12 of her 15 points in the first half, helping the Razorbacks overcome a sluggish start to build a double-digit lead.
The key spurt came after the game was tied 10-10. Arkansas went on a 13-1 run behind Wilson and guard Erin Gatling to jump out on to a 23-11 advantage.
Arkansas pushed the lead as high as 20 points taking advantage of sloppy play by the Tigers. The Razorbacks scored 19 points off 11 Memphis turnovers in the half.
“That’s a bad combination,” Memphis coach Melissa McFerrin said. “Turnovers for us and layups for the other team.”
So Arkansas led 39-21 at the break and appeared on their way to an easy first-round win. But Collen knew better. He urged his team to not relax despite enjoying its biggest halftime lead since a 22-point edge against Missouri on Feb. 17.
“All we talked about in the locker room at the half was coming out with intensity and not letting up,” Collen said. “Unfortunately, we took what was looking like a pretty good game and made it hard.”
Arkansas wasn’t as sharp in the second half and it showed in the opening minutes, when Memphis scored five straight to trim the deficit to 13 points. Still, the Razorbacks managed to maintain a double-digit lead most of the second half.
But that changed when Memphis point guard Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir hit back-to-back 3-pointers with 6:37 remaining. It cut Arkansas’ lead to 53-47.
“We didn’t come out as prepared,” Arkansas guard Calli Berna said. “That’s what got them back in the game, a few defensive breakdowns we shouldn’t have had.”
The teams swapped baskets until Memphis left Williams open on the perimeter with 4:06 left. The senior, who had taken a few ill-advised 3-pointers earlier in the game, had no trouble with her seventh and final attempt and it give Arkansas a 60-51 lead.
“I heard my wife over on the bench going, ‘No! Q! No!’” Collen said about Arkansas assistant Nicki Collen. “She was mad at me that I let her take the shots that I did. … You just kind of live and learn as a coach and sometimes you go with those kids. If they believe in themselves, then you can’t pull the reins back on those kinds of kids.”
The big bucket came on a tough shooting night for Williams, who was 4-for-15 overall and 2-for-7 from long range. But she ended Memphis’ upset hopes with the key 3. Arkansas eventually regained a 10-point lead and never lost it the final 3:39.
“My coach tells me forget about the last shot I took,” Williams said. “So I honestly forgot I missed all those threes and took the last one and it dropped.”
Williams finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds. She was part of Arkansas’ 7-for-17 performance behind the 3-point line Thursday.
Berna also scored 14 points and handed out 6 assists in the win. Berna is now one assist shy of the single-season school record and – after Arkansas’ first-round win against Memphis – should reach the mark against Tulane.
“We get to continue to play basketball and that’s what we came here to do,” Williams said. “We are trying to finish out the season with a championship.”