Late in Tuesday's practice, Arkansas reserve center Kristina Andjelkovic took off the mask that protects her broken nose. Moments later, she suffered a shiner under her left eye.
"The whole left side of my face hurts," Andjelkovic said.
The injury-plagued Lady'Backs (13-8, 2-7 in the Southeastern Conference) play host to much-improved Alabama (13-8, 4-4 SEC) tonight in Bud Walton Arena.
Alabama has already bettered its 12-16 mark of last season and threatens to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Arkansas, barring a miraculous late-season rally or a run all the way through the SEC Tournament, will miss the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.
Sarah Pfeifer, the Lady'Backs' spiritual leader who is coming off a 17-point, 12-rebound game against Auburn, acknowleged that Arkansas' SEC woes have been frustrating.
"Everyone gets depressed when you lose," she said. "But something good can come out of this. If you keep working hard, something good is going to happen."
Even though 11th-place Arkansas could meet sixth-place Alabama again in the first round of the SEC Tournament at Greenville, S.C., next month, UA coach Susie Gardner is not looking past tonight's game.
"I'm so not thinking about the SEC Tournament," Gardner said. "I won't even speculate on who we might play. That usually comes down to the buzzer of the last (regular-season) game. We have to stay with the task at hand, and hope to build confidence against every team we play."
Toward that end, Gardner devoted three straight practices strictly to shooting, after Arkansas shot just 23.6 percent in an otherwise well-played 62-51 loss to Auburn.
"We had some key stops against Auburn, but we shot about as poorly as you can," Gardner said. "Since then we've worked on our shooting form, getting our rhythm down, staying in the same spot, shooting bank shots and shooting off the dribble."
Alabama presents the same problem most SEC schools do to undersized Arkansas, as the Tide start 6-foot-4 center Dee Merriweather and bring massive 6-4 junior Krystle Johnson off the bench.
"Johnson outweighs me by 100 pounds," Pfeifer said.
Johnson hails from Hoover, Ala., but is in her first season with the Tide after transferring from UCLA.
Veteran 'Bama coach Rick Moody (310-169) has used seven starting lineups this season and recently benched 5-10 sophomore guard Marverly Nettles despite her team-high 13.4 scoring average.
Similarly, Gardner replaced 5-9 guard Rochelle Vaughn (9.2) with Sheree Thompson against Auburn and will start Thompson again tonight.
"I wish somebody would make it obvious who should start (at guard), but nobody made any plays down the stretch at Auburn," Gardner said.
The Lady'Backs were tied with Auburn until the last four minutes.
Because both Pfeifer and fellow 6-foot forward Danielle Allen had double-doubles against the Tigers, Gardner said, "Without question, we'll go to them more."
Pfeifer now leads Arkansas in scoring with a 9.4 average, while Allen leads in SEC play at 11.2.
Monique Bivins, a 5-9 Alabama senior guard, leads tonight's Tide starters with a 10.6 mark, followed by 6-foot senior Natasha Gamble at 9.7 and 5-10 sophomore Navonda Moore at 8.2.
"Alabama has everything you need," Gardner said. "They have good guards, good size and depth. They just beat Florida handily (77-66), after Florida had taken Tennessee to overtime.
Alabama leads Arkansas 13-11 in the series, but Arkansas has won four of the last five games between the two.
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