Tuesday, December 11, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Wolff has a subtle presence for Hogs

Special to The Leader

FAYETTEVILLE – For seven minutes during the Razorbacks’ biggest women’s home game of the nonconference season, Arkansas was the team that cried, “Wolff!”

Melissa Wolff, the freshman reserve guard from Cabot, hit the go-ahead three-pointer for the Razorbacks’ first lead, 17-16, against No. 17 Kansas on Dec. 6 at Bud Walton Arena.

She continued spurring Arkansas to a 33-24 halftime lead in its 64-56 victory. Immediately following her trey, she got a steal and assist to teammate Sarah Watkins. Wolff finished the half 2 for 2 from the field for five points with a rebound, steal, two assist and zero turnovers.

“It was really important,” Arkansas Coach Tom Collen said of Wolff’s first-half flurry.

Wolff finished the game shooting 2 for 5 for the same five points with one more assist vs. one second-half turnover. She played 14 more minutes in the second half.

She played more, Collen said, because her rebounding, four for the game, and defense helped put the brakes on the Jayhawks after they briefly re-took the lead.

“Really her play all the way around was subtle,” Collen said. “She doesn’t take a lot of shots but hit a big three. Probably the most unnoticed thing is she was really solid defensively and she gave us another rebounder in there.”

Collen said Wolff, 6-feet, provides a greater presence on the boards to complement starting point guard Calli Berna than does 5-8 freshman scoring guard Dominique Wilson and the more slightly built 5-10 shooting guard Kelsey Hatcher.

“We are not very physical at the 2-spot with Kelsey Hatcher and Dominique Wilson sometimes,” Collen said. “So we made the decision to go there for her rebounding. She’s a strong kid and she’s always where she is supposed to be defensively. There is an art to that. She is a big reason why I thought our defense was so good down the stretch.”

It was much the same when Arkansas battled now No. 12 Oklahoma to the wire in a 73-70 loss.

“When we played Oklahoma, I had a really bad off shooting night but I was able to stay in for rebounding and defense,” Wolff said. “That was another big team that I logged quite a few minutes and that was a good opportunity to get experience.”

Averaging 17.8 minutes per game and playing in all the games for an 8-1 Razorbacks team now among those getting Top 25 votes, Wolff enhances Arkansas’ opportunities to win says, senior center Sarah Watkins.

Watkins, the top returnee from last season’s 24-9 second-round NCAA Tournament team, asserts the kid from Cabot sets the curve on effort and defensive positioning.

“She’s a hard-nosed kid coming out of high school,” Watkins said. “She knows where to be on defense and she plays really hard. She plays probably harder than anybody on the floor and it shows. She gets all the hustle plays. She has been really big for us in this stretch of games.”

If she leads on effort, Wolff says it’s because she usually starts every matchup at some disadvantage. Perhaps Arkansas’ most versatile defender, Wolff not only guards guards but small forwards, power forwards and sometimes even the opposition’s biggest post.

“I know I am not the quickest or the strongest out there,” Wolff said. “So I have to work that much harder to be able to keep up with everybody.”

Frankly, it would seem more difficult for everybody to keep up with her.

While leading Cabot to a state championship last season, Wolff was a National Honor Society student. She completes her first fall semester at the UA this week majoring in kinesiology with plans once she achieves her bachelor’s degree to transfer to a program offering a doctorate in physical therapy.

Last March when the Razorbacks were in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Texas A&M, Wolff was spending her last high school spring break with her church youth group in South Africa.

“We visited schools and talked to the kids and visited hospitals,” Wolff said. “We saw a lot of poverty, it was very sad. It makes you grateful for what you have.”

For her locale to study and play ball, it seems Wolff has it all.

“Growing up in Arkansas I wanted to be a Razorback and this was a great opportunity,” Wolff said. “Arkansas is where I always wanted to be.”

Her coaches and teammates sound grateful to have her.