Texas A&M vs. Tennessee women's basketball

Chennedy CarterĀ 

Eagle photo by Laura McKenzie

Texas A&M is not a basketball school, yet it finds ways to win games no one else has.

First it was the men rallying from a 12-point deficit in the final 44 seconds for a 92-88 double-overtime victory over Northern Iowa in the second round of the 2016 NCAA tournament. It was the largest last-minute deficit overcome to win in college basketball history.

Thursday night it was the women defying logic in a 79-76 overtime victory over sixth-ranked Tennessee. The 17th-ranked Aggies missed 18 straight field goals down the stretch.

A&M missed open shots. It missed ugly, contested shots that had no chance of going in. A&M kept firing, but the result was the same for 10 minutes, 52 seconds as ugly became uglier. The only point A&M scored in what was more than a quarter was a free throw by Chennedy Carter, and it could have been two points, but she missed the second shot even though she's by far the starting unit's best free-throw shooter. It was that bad. Yet somehow, someway, the Aggies pulled it together in the final 100 seconds.

It would have potentially been a devastating loss, the team's fifth straight against ranked teams. The 0-for-18 fiasco would have been suffocating. Time after time, the conversation would get back to the Tennessee game A&M gave away, the all-time choke job at home. All those missed shots, half of them inside the paint, painfully would be relived as if the first time wasn't bad enough.

But instead of doom and gloom, head coach Gary Blair was talking championships less than an hour after junior guard Danni Williams and senior post Khaalia Hillsman combined to hit seven straight free throws, turning a four-point deficit into the program's first victory over a Top 10 team in three seasons.

Both players at that point were mentally and physically drained, having never left the floor. Hillsman battled against 6-foot-6 Mercedes Russell, who will be a first-round WNBA draft pick. Hillsman held her own, but down the stretch she committed two fouls, missed a layup and had a turnover. Williams constantly was dogged by Tennessee's talented, quicker freshmen. That seemed to take its toll as four of those 18 straight misses were by Williams.

But together they helped turn things around. Hillsman's sixth offensive rebound -- she had twice as many as anyone else -- led to a pair of free throws. Williams followed with a game-tying shot from the top of the key that hit the front of the rim and fell through. She then hit three straight free throws for the lead, and Tennessee put a bow on A&M's surprising victory, first by fouling Williams, then failing to get off a shot in the final 7 seconds because of an unforced turnover, losing its first game of the season after 15 straight victories.

There's no doubt A&M had a little luck. Heck, even Blair would admit to that. He carries a 50-cent piece in his pocket minted in 1945, the year he was born. He rubs it for luck when games get tight. It's certainly worked in the last two meetings against Tennessee, because the Aggies closed last year's game on a 14-1 run for a 61-59 victory, the program's first in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was rubbing it hard again Thursday, but more importantly, he was coaching even harder.

"I wouldn't let the kids get down on themselves," Blair said of his message during the 0-of-18 shooting slump. "I was trying to do my best motivation and just say, 'Hey, we will find a way.' I just enjoy coaching this team."

And he's had to do plenty of that because this team was a big disappointment three weeks ago after getting blasted 84-62 by 10th-ranked Oregon for a second straight time. The Aggies had been no match for Oregon and 11th-ranked West Virginia, along with often struggling to beat inferior teams. This team was supposed to be better than that with four returning starters from an overachieving team that reached the NCAA tournament's second round and the addition of the program's most heralded recruit, point guard Carter, who is even better than expected. She's the lone freshman in the country named to the midseason Wooden Award list.

This potentially was a Sweet 16 team but playing like it would bow out in the second round again.

A&M might have found itself in a 61-59 loss at then-fourth-ranked South Carolina. A few calls down the stretch didn't go A&M's way, and the Aggies weren't good enough mentally and physically to overcome it. But less than two weeks later the Aggies were strong enough to weather an 0-of-18 shooting skid.

Much has changed starting with the defense. A&M looked clueless in losses to Oregon and West Virginia, who combined to shoot 48.6 percent. And it wasn't just them. Rice hit 15 of 27 3-pointers against A&M. Rice is a good team, leading Conference USA, but it's shooting only 37.3 percent from behind the arc against everyone else, which includes only one Power Five conference team.

A&M has gotten better since getting shredded by Oregon. The last five opponents shot 39.4 percent from the field, including 36.7 percent from 3-point range. A&M's not good enough or has enough of a bench to force turnovers, but it was smart enough to send Tennessee to the free-throw line only 11 times. The Lady Vols were one of the best at getting the charity stripe, averaging 26.8 attempts per game. That was the difference in the game. While the Aggies were throwing up bricks, the Lady Vols were only 4 of 13 with four turnovers. Much of the credit for the improved defensive play goes to assistant coach Bob Starkey, who is in charge of the unit. Starkey is good at what he does but always loses in comparisons with his predecessor, Vic Schaefer, who not only helped A&M win a national title but is an Aggie. You're liable to hear after any A&M loss, "Well, he's no Vic Scahefer." Luckily for A&M, Starkey has a thick skin and works well with Blair, who is in charge of the offense. Yet there are those who think Blair really doesn't like Starkey because of their, well let's say animated discussions on the bench. Hey, that's coaching at its best. I, too, have seen those exchanges. They are two guys with a passion for success who believe in what they're doing trying to get their points across. They remind me of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in Grumpy Old Men. Each is set in his own way but also respects the other so much, he realizes the other guy could be right.

Blair and Starkey are complemented by associate head coach Kelly Bond-White and assistant Amy Wright, who seemingly do the grunt work. They sort of remind me of Ann-Margret and Sophia Loren in Grumpier Old Men. They know they're really in control, letting Blair and Starkey hog the spotlight, while they quietly coach and deal with so many things on a women's team that only a woman could -- at least, that's what my daughters tell me when they explain why they're always texting mother and rarely me.

Thursday night was special for A&M players and coaches, beating a program that's won eight national championships and remains the Southeastern Conference's measuring stick. This is the third straight season A&M has managed at least one victory over the Lady Vols.

"They set the bar for the rest of us of how they handle themselves on and off the court," Blair said to the crowd afterward. "They've given the blueprint to so many other schools, so give them a lot of credit. But how 'bout those Aggies?"

Those Aggies will have to get a lot better if they want to build on the Tennessee victory. A&M still doesn't have a bench; every starter lacks consistency; and the defense hasn't held back-to-back opponents under 40 percent shooting from the field since November.

Remember, basketball schools consistently get to the Sweet 16, which no player on this team has done. Thursday was just the first step, a baby one at that.

Robert Cessna's email address is robert.cessna@theeagle.com.

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