Friday, August 09, 2013

SPORTS STORY>>Locals big for UA women

Special to The Leader

FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas’ women’s basketball team left Fayetteville on Thursday for Italy and a 10-day trip of sightseeing plus three exhibition games against Italian professional teams.

“They are professional teams but they are not the Italian National team,” Razorbacks coach Tom Collen said of the opponents’ caliber. “We want to enjoy the tour and see the sights and we look forward to playing the games and rolling these kids out there and giving them a chance to play and roll out in the fall with a head start.”

Six freshmen, including nationally heralded 6-3 forward Jessica Jackson of Jacksonville, will make their Arkansas debut on tour.

“She is probably the highest ranked player that they ever signed,” Collen said, going back to days of successful predecessor coaches Gary Blair, and John Sutherland. “It’s been so long ago I don’t know if Shameka Christon (the All-American from Hot Springs playing in the WNBA) and Ruby Vaden (of Osceola) were ranked as high as she was but they were very good out of high school. It is a big step for our program that we were able to keep a player of her caliber in state. She could have gone to anywhere in the country, Connecticut, Tennessee, Texas A&M … they all recruited her hard. They all offered her. But this is where she always wanted to be. We need her to step in and be impactful. She certainly has the talent. But she is a freshman and there is a learning curve for her, too, but there is an opportunity for her to play right away and I think she knows that. And my best guess is she is going to take advantage of that and make it happen.”

Jackson arrives as the Razorbacks lose their biggest post players, Sarah Watkins and Quistelle Williams, from last year’s team.

Their graduations, plus the transfer of sophomore starting guard Dominique Wilson to North Carolina, should make for another year of versatile 6-0 guard-forward Melissa Wolff of Cabot playing all over the court.

Wolff was used in spurts last season, sometimes extensively and sometimes very little.

“Her most difficult thing was we kept moving her all over the floor,” Collen said. “When Dominique Wilson emerged she lost minutes at the two. With Keira Peak (a returning senior starter) and Dominique Robinson (her career ended by injury) being juniors last year, she had difficulty getting minutes at the three. I think she is one of those veterans, even though only a sophomore, that has the opportunity to rise up and play a pretty important role for us. She is going to be everywhere from the off guard to the small forward to the high post. We like her versatility. She may eventually settle into one position but we think she gives us a lot of flexibility.”

Collen says Peak needs to consistently peak this season.

“Keira had moments where I would have voted her the SEC’s most outstanding player early in the year,” Collen said. “But this is her time and she has got to step up consistently. We need her to be an All-Conference type of player. She has got that in her.”

Collen said he needs continued improvement from returning posts Jhasmin Bowen and Joey Bailey, He also bragged on junior Calli Berna of Fayetteville.

“She is the best point guard in the SEC for taking care of the ball and involving her teammates,” Collen said. “She must shoot more often and with more accuracy this season.