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Beasting isn’t a term normally reserved for women basketball players, but don’t tell Chelsea Dungee that.
During the Razorbacks’ 90-87 win against No. 3 Connecticut on January 28, practically any time the Huskies put a single player on Dungee, she made that defender pay. On multiple drives to the basket, Dungee’s opponents bounced off her like pinballs before she deftly spun away from the contact, flipping up left-handed shots off the backboard and in. When her defenders sagged off, the 5’11” redshirt senior sank mid-range daggers and three-point shots.
Her 37 points — the most scored by a UConn opponent in 21 years — goes down as one of the most impressive singular performances in Razorback sports history. It’s not the first time she’s raised her game against an elite opponent, either.
In 2019, in the SEC Tournament, Dungee scored an SEC-record 103 points, including a 31-point outburst against No. 12 South Carolina, which had won four straight tournament titles to that point.
Earlier this season, she had scored 22 points alongside Amber Ramirez’s 23 points as Arkansas took down then-No. 4 Baylor, the defending national champion.
Dungee’s ability to raise her game against the best of the best is rare. Only a few male Razorback basketball players could do the same, with Corliss Williamson the most successful of them all.
Williamson, Arkansas’ best player during its national championship run in 1994 and runner-up finish a year later, primarily played in the post. Dungee, meanwhile, is a face-up threat whose game more resembles that of 2020 SEC Player of the Year Mason Jones. But Williamson and Dungee are both clear-cut alphas who play with physicality and aggression. When the lights shine brightest, both have stepped up in a big way.
🐗 BIG NASTY 🏆 pic.twitter.com/yoSFJh1EB4
— SEC Network 8pm 🐗 (@RazorbackMBB) March 1, 2019
For Williamson, those regular-season performances often came against a highly-ranked Kentucky team.
As a freshman, for instance, he had 22 points on 60% shooting in a win against No. 2 Kentucky. As a junior, in a close win against No. 5 Kentucky, he delivered 28 points on 9-of-15 shooting, along with 9 rebounds.
Later in the 1994-95 season, against No. 4 North Carolina in the Final Four, he put up 21 points on 10-of-17 shooting and helped limit Tarheels All-American Rasheed Wallace to 10 points. That 1994-95 season was the last time an Arkansas basketball program had beaten two Top 5 teams in the same year — until the women did it this season.
Amber Ramirez, who often plays the role of Scotty Thurman to Dungee’s Corliss, said their chemistry together is paying off.
“Me and Chelsea have been playing together since AAU ball before we got into college together,” she said on 103.7 The Buzz’s “Out of Bounds.” “She’s just played outstanding this whole season. I know she’d had 20-point games in the last four or five games and she’s just playing right now on another level. Her playing well definitely opens up my game as well. A lot of focus does go to her, but right now no team can really guard her.”
In Dungee and Ramariz’s chemistry, there are echoes of Williamson and Thurman, who started developing a deep friendship playing pickup games in Barnhill Arena the summer before their freshman season.
Dungee, like Williamson, plays with an edge that seems at odds with her off-court demeanor.
Off the court, the collegiate Willamson was usually friendly and optimistic, a product of his smaller-town upbringing in Russellville. The aggressive mentality needed to take advantage of his sculpted frame and superior strength didn’t come naturally. He had to work to live up to the “Big Nasty” nickname his cousin coach, Clarence Finley, had given him during AAU basketball practices.
The nickname “kind of gave me this alter ego, so every time I stepped out onto the court I kind of became this different person to what I was off the court,” Williamson said in the documentary “Corlissville.”
Dungee, too, is a product of a small town. Growing up in Preston, Oklahoma, she leaned on her single mother, Chi Dungee. They leaned on each other through a few hardships, including their house burning down when Chelsea was in high school.
Chi Dungee’s perseverance and confidence inspired her daughter. “My mom’s from a poor background,” Chelsea told sportscaster Bo Mattingly in late 2019. “I think that there’s a lot of drive in those people. If you want better, it takes a lot. And I think that that poured into me too. And my mom has a master’s degree now. She comes from seven brothers and sisters. Her mom died when she was 14, her dad’s gone also at a young age. My mom moved out of the house when she was 16 and she’s working on a doctorate degree right now.”
While Chelsea Dungee isn’t Corliss-strong, she did lose 25 pounds and put on 15 pounds of muscle early in her Razorback career. She’s used her extra strength not only to score huge wins for the Hogs, but also to show thousands of girls that it’s possible to be both feminine and powerful.
Dungee is a visual dichotomy, writes Ozy.com’s Ray Glier: “Her flowing eyelashes, sparkling earrings to go with the sparkling smile, look nothing like the snarling player with the basketball who uses a raised arm bar under the chin of the defender to protect her dribble and has a clenched jaw as she barrels down the lane.”
Dungee is aware of this contrast.
In fact, she embraces it:
Beauty and the Beast🌹 pic.twitter.com/LJLLwfXHJl
— Chelsea Dungee (@chelsea_dungee) October 2, 2019
“I feel like both are my identity,” she said on “The Hog Pod” podcast. “I feel like there’s a little bit in both pictures… I think people get it confused that you can’t be beautiful and pretty, as well as aggressive and play basketball and set records. I just like to remind people that there’s a balance in both. You can have a life outside of basketball also.”
Chelsea Dungee’s goal is to be a first-round WNBA draft pick, which looks all the more likely after recently winning ESPN’s National Player of Week award. In fact, she’s now projected to be a Top 5 pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft.
Before then, Dungee, her teammates and coach Mike Neighbors will aim to return Arkansas to its first Final Four since 1998. They will be plenty prepared, having gone through a gauntlet more difficult than what Williamson’s Razorbacks experienced in their championship season when they played only two ranked teams in the regular season (Mizzou, unranked at the time they played, would finish No. 5.)
Over the course of three seasons, Williamson’s Hogs won four of nine games against teams ranked in the Top 5 at the time of the contest.
Likewise, in three seasons with Dungee, the Razorbacks have lost more games against top 5 teams (5) than they have won (2). Powerhouse South Carolina, which has beaten the Hogs four times since that 2019 SEC tourney, accounts for most of the damage.
Those kinds of losses are inevitable, however. It’s the cost of building a foundation for greatness, which starts with being good enough to compete with great teams on a regular basis.
In her three seasons, Chelsea Dungee’s edge and work ethic has permeated this program: “Being average really drove me,” she told Mattingly. “I was always good, but there were a lot of people that are better than me. And that didn’t sit well with me for a long time.”
“I want to be one of the best that has ever come through whatever program I’m a part of. And being average and being just a good player, you’ll be remembered — but I wanted to be remembered on a different level.”
The wins over Baylor and UConn helped start that process.
A deep run in March Madness would finish it. Cementing Her Legacy.
— Razorback WBB (@RazorbackWBB) February 1, 2021
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