The Texas A&M women’s basketball team hopes to be better physically and mentally when it plays Vanderbilt on Thursday, while also helping many others in the program’s annual Beat The Hell Outta Breast Cancer Game.
The 16th-ranked Aggies (18-5, 6-4), coming off back-to-back losses at LSU and Mississippi State, are in the toughest part of their Southeastern Conference schedule. After playing the Commodores (13-10, 3-7) at 8 p.m. Thursday at Reed Arena, the Aggies will be at 25th-ranked Tennessee (17-6, 7-3) on Sunday and at Georgia (13-11, 4-7) next Thursday to complete a stretch of four of five games on the road.
“This game is so important because we have to get our mojo back,” A&M coach Gary Blair said. “We have to get our confidence back.”
Mississippi State beat A&M for the seventh straight time Sunday, turning a 12-point deficit into a 69-57 victory.
“What we’ve got to do is worry about Texas A&M and be able to finish games, not just play well for 35 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever,” Blair said. “[And] yes, we have to get healthier.”
A&M played without junior guard Chennedy Carter for the seventh straight game Sunday. The Aggies have been treading water since she suffered a Grade 2 sprain of her left ankle late in the first half against LSU on Jan. 9. The Aggies are 4-3 without her, but it feels more like 4-4 since they had an eight-point lead over LSU when she got hurt but lost 57-54. Carter has been practicing with contact, but the return of the preseason SEC player of the year will be her decision.
“She’s going through treatment and she’s hurt,” Blair said. “She works with [orthopedic surgeon J.P.] Bramhall and she works with our trainer. And she worked out all last week on the court and she’ll work out [Wednesday]. But it doesn’t mean she’s ready to be in a game-type situation.”
Carter will return when she can play at the level she’s accustomed to without pain, Blair said.
Carter has been missed. A&M is averaging 70.3 points per game for the season, but in the four losses against LSU, Kentucky and Mississippi State, it averaged 55.8 points per game without once cracking 60.
“We cannot keep scoring in the 50s,” Blair said. “We’ve got to get up to the 70s and still keep our opponents down and play with the energy and have people on the bench who can contribute and help the team. I’m just trying to find solutions right now.”
The starters have had to play more minutes to make up for Carter, who was averaging 32 minutes. Senior point guard Shambria Washington, junior guard Aaliyah Wilson and junior wing Kayla Wells all played 40 minutes against Mississippi State, and junior power forward N’dea Jones missed only 37 seconds. Jones, Washington, Wells and junior center Ciera Johnson are averaging 8.7 more minutes per game in Carter’s absence.
“Until she gets back, we have to hold down the fort,” said Wells, adding they have figured out how to play without her.
A&M played its best three quarters sans Carter against Mississippi State, despite Johnson (12.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) playing only three minutes in the first half because of foul trouble.
“We know how well we played during that ballgame,” Blair said. “But then we know how we didn’t finish. We own up to that. We own up to not being able to finish the job.”
Blair said it’s time for the Aggies to look in the mirror and improve during the last six games of the regular season.
“This team will be back,” Blair said. “And this team will continue to get better with the players that are on the court right now.”
The Aggies, the coaches’ pick to win the league, can realistically finish as high as third. Top-ranked South Carolina (23-1, 10-0) and sixth-ranked Mississippi State (22-3, 10-1) would have to completely fall apart not to get a first-round bye for the SEC tournament, which starts March 4 in Greenville, South Carolina. A&M is among five teams within a game of each other fighting for the other two first-round byes.
“We have to realize we’re playing for a top-four seeding in the SEC tournament,” Blair said. “To do that, we’ve got to win game seven first [against Vanderbilt].”
Good news is A&M is 12-1 at home this season.
“I like my chances tomorrow night, because I like that word ‘home,’” Blair said. “At home, wearing pink and representing the breast cancer game, that’s the most important thing we could have going for us right now.”
Thursday’s game will be A&M’s 14th annual Beat The Hell Outta Breast Cancer Game, which has added meaning for the players.
“When I was in high school [at South Grand Prairie], my coach [Samantha Morrow] had breast cancer and she coached with it,” Wells said. “I’ve seen her coming from chemo. I’ve seen her go through the struggles. That game means a lot to me. I still wear her wristband on my ankle every game to represent the fight she went through. If she can fight, then I can fight on the court for her.”
Jones’ grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I was happy she was able to beat it, and she’s still here with us today,” Jones said. “The breast cancer game is just a really big game for us because I think everybody has somebody in their family or knows somebody who was affected by it. So we try to go really hard and play for them.”
Thursday’s game will raise money for the Pink Alliance, a local nonprofit group, and the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.
T-shirts will be $10, and there will be a silent auction. A&M assistant coach Bob Starkey and his wife will donate $1.50 for each A&M student who attends. Fans wearing pink can buy tickets for $3. Admission is free for breast cancer survivors or those undergoing treatment.
“We’re honored to do this,” Blair said.
The SEC office works with its schools on determining what game will be its breast cancer awareness game, and television dictates the time, Blair said.
“None of us can be excited about an 8 o’clock tip time, because the makeup of the majority of our crowd are the young families who want to bring their kids to the game. But it is what is. I’d like for it to be a 7 o’clock game, but I wouldn’t want it to be 6 o’clock if it was a Thursday.”
NOTES — Jones has had 11 straight double-doubles. ... A&M is in seventh place in the SEC, and Vanderbilt is tied with Florida (12-11, 3-7) for 10th. ... Vanderbilt is coming off a 63-47 victory over last-place Ole Miss that snapped a six-game losing streak. ... Fourth-year Vanderbilt coach Stephanie White, who came from the WNBA, is 10-36 in conference play with the highest finish a tie for 11th two years ago. ... A&M is hopeful to get back junior guard Aahliyah Jackson (ankle), who missed the MSU game and was questionable for Wednesday’s practice. True freshman backup point guard McKinzie Green will miss the game with the flu.