The 17th-ranked Texas A&M women's basketball team had to fight through some bad play to grab one of the program's biggest victories since winning the national championship in 2011.
Junior shooting guard Danni Williams hit three free throws with 7.8 seconds left in overtime to lift the Aggies to a 79-76 victory over the sixth-ranked Tennessee Lady Vols in Southeastern Conference action Thursday night at Reed Arena. Williams hit nothing but net all three times, delighting the partisan crowd of 5,043 a little more each time.
"I thought I was going to throw up," said Williams, who played all 45 minutes. "I knew I had to breathe and relax and treat it like everyday shooting free throws."
Williams is the third-best free-throw shooter among A&M's starters at 73.2 percent, and she came through to give A&M its first victory over a Top 10 team in three years. The win also lifted the Aggies (14-4, 3-1) into a six-way tie for second in the SEC along with Tennessee (15-1, 3-1) behind fourth-ranked Mississippi State (18-0, 4-0).
The Lady Vols had a chance to retake the lead after Williams' free throws gave the Aggies a 77-76 lead, but freshman point guard Evina Westbrook threw a pass that led senior forward Jaime Nared out of the bounds into the end of the Tennessee bench. The unforced error was one of many miscues by both teams in a hard-fought final 10 minutes of a tight game that was tied 10 times with 17 lead changes.
"Win or lose, that was a great ball game," said A&M head coach Gary Blair, who had seen his team lose its first four games this season against ranked teams. "Like [Tennessee coach] Holly [Warlick] told me after the game, she said, 'Gary, it was a great game.' Yes, it was, but Holly's about 30 years younger than me. She could probably enjoy it a little bit more. My heart was going pitter patter all the way."
Blair wasn't the only one keyed up as the two teams played their third nail-biter in the last four meetings.
Tennessee, which battled back from a seven-point deficit in the final 6 minutes of regulation to force overtime, scored the first four points in overtime by getting the ball inside to 6-foot-6 Mercedes Russell and 6-2 Nared, who each hit a pair of three throws.
The Lady Vols missed on two chances to extend the lead as Nared turned the ball over with 2:46 left and missed a 3-pointer with 2:14 left.
The four-point lead looked bigger when Williams missed a 3-pointer with 1:49 left. That made A&M 0 of 17 from the field in the last 9 minutes, 51 seconds. This time A&M was able to get the offensive rebound only to miss an 18th straight shot when freshman point guard Chennedy Carter missed a long jumper. A&M senior post Khaalia Hillsman came up with her six offensive rebound and drew a foul. She hit two free throws to end a 7:29 scoring drought for A&M. Williams tied the game at 74 on a shot from the top of the key, a shot that got a kind bounce from the rim. Williams got the ball by stealing it from Westbrook.
Mercedes answered to give the Lady Vols a 76-74 lead with a powerful short bank shot with 19 seconds left.
During the ensuing timeout, Blair put the game in Williams' hands.
"I said, 'If you get an open look, don't go for the tie,'" Blair said. "If she shoots inside the arc, those are going to be the ones that are contested and that she was missing. If she gets an open look, let it fly."
Williams was a couple feet outside the arc when she shot and got fouled by Westbrook.
"I tried to get the best shot possible and soon enough, so we could get the rebound and putback if needed," Williams said. "I was ready to take that shot. A couple times [Westbrook] had contested me in the prior shots. The last shot I took she actually had blocked, so I knew if I could draw her a little bit in it could be a foul."
Westbrook, starting guard Rennia Davis and reserve guard Anastasia Hayes are part of Tennessee's freshman class ranked the best in the country. They combined for 22 points against A&M but also had 12 of the team's 16 turnovers and had eight fouls, helping the Aggies go 21 of 26 at the free-throw line, while Tennessee was 9 of 11, taking its fewest free throws of the season.
"I obviously would much rather have won, but our young kids will learn from this," Warlick said. "We are going to need to grow up a little bit. Everything about this game we will learn from."
The 6-5 Hillsman led the way for A&M with 22 points, hitting 8 of 9 field goals and all six free throw attempts. She scored 12 points off offensive rebounds as A&M had an 18-14 edge in second-chance points. She also played every minute in helping the Aggies to a 45-44 rebounding edge.
Williams also scored 22 points. Carter had 21 points, hitting 9 of 31 shots. At times Carter had trouble staying in control, but Tennessee also had a hard time containing her.
Russell had 21 points and 10 rebounds. Nared added 18 points and seven rebounds.
A&M's biggest lead was 32-24 when Williams hit a pair of free throws to cap an 11-2 run that included Hillsman scoring twice off offensive rebounds. The Lady Vols closed the half on a 12-2 run for a 36-34 lead. Carter helped the Lady Vols with two missed jumpers and had two turnovers in the last 4 minutes.
Nared opened the second half by hitting a 3, but the Aggies hit 8 of 14 field goals in the period for a 58-55 lead.
It was pretty much a dogfight the rest of the way as emotional and mental fatigue led to some of the mistakes as eight players played at least 40 minutes, including all the A&M starters. A&M's bench played 7 minutes taking one shot and grabbed one rebound, their only statistics. Blair said his team was dead tired at the end and he probably should have used his bench more, but it was a well-deserved and much-needed victory.
"I'm going to go get me a big chicken fried steak filet mignon at the Republic and a glass of wine and I'm going to enjoy this and go home and watch it," Blair said.
A&M's last Top 10 victory was a nonconference 63-59 victory over eighth-ranked Duke on Nov. 20, 2014, at Reed Arena.
NOTES -- A&M won at Tennessee last year for the first time, ending on a 14-1 run for a 61-59 victory. A&M beat Tennessee 76-71 in overtime in the last meeting at Reed Arena in 2016. ... Carter and Mississippi State junior center Teaira McCowan, who is from Brenham, made the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 on Thursday. Carter is the lone freshman on the list. Missouri junior guard Sophie Cunningham, Mississippi State senior guard Victoria Vivians, South Carolina senior forward A'ja Wilson and Tennessee's Russell and Nared also made the list along with Texas senior guards Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty and Baylor junior center Kalani Brown.