A Swaggering Scorer Revives Hoop Dreams at Arkansas
After a childhood of adversity, Chelsea Dungee is a breakout star on the court.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this top-flight scorer carries a mental toughness from childhood struggles.
Every basketball player wants to cook up a coach like this, one with green lights, not stop signs. At Arkansas, women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors’ only diktat is that his players have to practice a Cirque du Soleil move before they can use it in the game. Practice it once, of course. That’s enough. Go play.
The dynamic, impetuous, rambunctious Chelsea Dungee takes gleeful advantage of the freedom.
She is a rolling stone — none of that strangulation by triangulation that comes from debating pass, shoot, screen, dribble, cut, stand there. The flashing green lights meant Dungee, a 5-foot-11 swing guard, could go for 103 points in the Southeastern Conference Tournament last March to break a 35-year-old record. Hers is a pro-style game of dribble drive, aggressiveness, mental toughness, draw a foul, stand on the line, bang down points … and do it again and again.
Dungee, who averaged 20.5 points a game last season, says several times over the course of an hour: “I love Mike Neighbors’ system.”
Of course she does. Neighbors’ system is why Dungee, 22, ended up at Arkansas and why the Razorbacks are about to be relevant again in women’s hoops.
Her freedom now is miles from a childhood of limits. Chi Dungee raised Chelsea herself in Oklahoma as a single mom social worker, and there were many nights where they had just a few dollars for dinner. “You go through the drive-thru a lot and you skip the dessert and the ice cream,” Chelsea says. “My mom looked for free things to do, like ride bikes or jog.”
I can argue with you that she’s our most improved player, which is pretty scary when she was on a high level already.
arkansas coach Mike Neighbors
In the fall of Chelsea’s sophomore year in high school, their house in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, burned down. The trophies from a spectacular career in youth basketball, the clothes, the furniture — it was all a pile of ashes. They did not have the resources to easily rebuild their lives. Mother and daughter spent the holidays living in a hotel. Chi washed the same clothes over and over.
“I leaned on my mom — and my mom is such a strong person and it all worked out — but it teaches you a lot from situations that you go through, being able to fight through adversity,” Chelsea says.
She also emerged with a willingness to seek out opportunity rather than let it come to her. When Dungee was finishing up her freshman season at Oklahoma in March 2017, the Sooners played an NCAA Tournament game against the University of Washington, which was coached by Neighbors. Dungee did not notice Neighbors as much as she noticed his players. They were fearless with the ball. The Huskies won, 108–82. “That’s the kind of system I want to play in,” she told herself.
So when Neighbors left Washington and took the Arkansas job a couple weeks later, Dungee announced she would transfer there. She sat out a season under transfer rules, then stormed her way to second team All-SEC honors.
Neighbors does not have to worry that he has created a player he can’t control, a player who takes advantage of his goodwill. Dungee lost 35 pounds ahead of last season in order to be lighter for perimeter defense and more agile on offense. She then put on 15 pounds of muscle and can take the ball anywhere she wants to on the court.
Dungee came back for this season showing even more diligence, which is hardly the look of a shooter with hubris.
“I can argue with you that she’s our most improved player, which is pretty scary when she was on a high level already,” Neighbors says, ticking off improvements in Dungee’s jab step, rebounding and movement without the ball. “She’s been in the gym more this year extra than the two previous years combined.”
Dungee’s default mode is to drive the ball. Neighbors says Dungee once dribbled the ball 19 times in the half court. It seemed excessive, until the final result, which was a hoop plus a free throw. “So what do I care?” Neighbors says of his ball Hog.
Off court, Dungee flips her persona. 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.
She also has to curb the impulse to throw off hurt looks when a play goes wrong. “When things are bad, that’s when I want to be able to control my facial expression, my verbal language,” she says.
Dungee has to cure her episodic bouts of “you can’t touch this,” as she’s prone to “heat check” shots when she’s on fire from outside. But curbing Dungee heat checks would be anti-Neighbors. Give up the ball when she sees the double-team coming? Hardly. “I want her to split it,” Neighbors says.
Dungee could head off to the WNBA after this season (she will be eligible as a red-shirt junior). It’s too early for a draft projection, says SEC TV analyst and former college and pro coach Carolyn Peck, but it’s not too early to see the pro basketball qualities in her game.
“She’s really strong going to her left and her right, and she has a perimeter game, but I think the other thing she has that makes her a WNBA prospect is she has mental toughness, she’s a competitor,” Peck says. “She has a tenacity and perseverance and doesn’t quit.”
Dungee wants a pro career to help out her mom. In the meantime, she’s helping the Razorbacks get to the next level. After their 22 wins last year (the most in seven seasons), the Hogs were ranked No. 22 in the country entering the season. “The emergence of Arkansas has a lot to do with her; she didn’t get frustrated with having to build a program,” Peck says.
And the green light is still flashing. No sense in stopping now.