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Arkansas women headed back to Austin

FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas women’s basketball team had to wait a little longer than its male counterparts to hear its name called Sunday as part of the field of 68 in this year NCAA Tournament.

The Arkansas men’s team heard its name called in probably less than a minute when the first bracket was announced a couple of hours earlier. But the Razorback women had to wait more than 25 minutes after their selection show began later in the day.

It was worth the wait for at least one Razorback.

Guard Amber Ramirez, a San Antonio native and the lone senior on the roster, will get to play in her home state as No. 10 seed Arkansas (18-13) will head to Austin, Texas, to face seventh-seeded Utah (20-11) in the opening round of the tournament on Friday as part of the Spokane Region.

Game times will be announced at a later date.

“I was getting a little nervous because we were getting to the end,” said Ramirez, who averages a team-high 15.1 points per game. “Then when our name popped up there going back to Austin, it was a great feeling. Going back home. Family gets to be there one last time.

“It’s just a great feeling. I’m excited to go. I feel like it’s gonna be a redemption. That’s where we ended last year, so I think going back this year is gonna be great for us.”

Arkansas shook off a four-game losing streak late in the season to down Mississippi State on the road in the regular-season finale and then defeat Missouri in the opening round of the SEC Tournament before falling to No. 1 South Carolina in the quarterfinals.

Arkansas Coach Mike Neighbors acknowledged a few nerves himself as the teams started clicking off and the Razorbacks were yet to be called. When the name flashed on the screen the emotions were apparent as he smiled, pumped his fist and the crowd in the Frank Broyles Center cheered.

“Your mind starts turning when you see some teams that maybe you didn’t expect to see on there,” Neighbors said. “It’s like, ‘Did I figure this out wrong?’ or ‘Are we gonna see our names?’ Butterflies creep back in there. I’m too old for butterflies, mine were moths. I think the kids had butterflies.”

“It was sheer excitement. I was holding [son] Bowen when the screen came and he jumped about 6 feet in the air, so I’ll remember that moment for a long time.”

Neighbors is happy to make the return trip to Austin, where the Razorbacks fell 66-62 to Wright State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament last year. He is also happy for his team, which includes five freshmen and the one senior, in getting back to the NCAA Tournament.

“To be in the NCAA Tournament, that’s what we all play for. To get this group back there and see them enjoy this. I’m super proud of and for them.”

Utah has been good lately, making a run to the finals of the Pac-12 Tournament as the sixth seed before losing to top- seed Stanford. Neighbors compared the Utes to Missouri. Freshmen Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson are the team’s’ top two scorers, averaging 12.0 and 11.9 points per game.

“They do have some size, but not Tamari Key and Aliyah Boston size, but good size,” Neighbors said. “Very good offensively. Because I’m friends with [Utah Coach) Lynn [Roberts] and some of their staff, I follow what they do. And I know their high in points per possession and very efficient.

“Again, a great matchup for us when it comes to style of play and they’re playing some young kids as well.”

Arkansas will be going to back-to-back tournaments, but Neighbors reiterated his thoughts about it actually being three in a row. The Razorbacks were all but a lock for the tournament in 2020, which was canceled because of the pandemic.

This group is in rare company in program history. The Razorbacks have been to the NCAA Tournament three years in a row just two other times in 2001-03 and 1989-91.

This will be the 13th tournament appearance in program history. Last year was just the third time the Razorbacks lost in the first round.

The winner of Friday’s game will face either No. 2 seed Texas (26-6) or No. 15 seed Fairfield. The Longhorns won the Big 12 Tournament championship Sunday and are coached by former Arkansas assistant coach Vic Schaefer, a close friend of Neighbors.

Reigning national champion Stanford is the No. 1 seed in the Spokane Region, while LSU is the No. 3 seed.