The Texas A&M women’s basketball team is a big victory from everything being OK, but just when will that happen? This month? Next month? Next season?
The 16th-ranked Aggies (18-4, 6-3) have been pretty much in a holding pattern since junior guard Chennedy Carter injured her left ankle. They’ve been just OK, going 4-2 with the victories against teams ranked from 72nd through 131th in the NCAA’s RPI ratings and three of them coming at home. A&M lost to 15th-ranked Kentucky and LSU, by far the best teams it played over the stretch with both losses coming on the road. Maybe A&M wins those games with Carter, but the Aggies weren’t playing their best before she got hurt, further clouding the future.
Coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances with its top six players returning, A&M seemed a lock to start the NCAA tournament at home, hopefully no lower than a No. 2 seed. But A&M currently is projected as a No. 5 seed with few opportunities remaining in the regular season to improve its resume.
The Aggies will play at eighth-ranked Mississippi State (19-3, 9-1) on Sunday and at top-ranked South Carolina (21-1, 10-0) on March 11. The only other ranked team A&M could play would be next Sunday at 23rd-ranked Tennessee (17-6, 7-3), which is coming off a 72-55 home loss to Mississippi State. The Lady Vols, with an RPI of No. 46, could be out of the Top 25 rankings by the time A&M gets to Knoxville, Tennessee. Ranked or not, it’s always tough to win at Tennessee.
A&M will help itself by winning two of those games, but it also could lose all three. The Aggies will have a tough time beating Mississippi State even if Carter plays. The Bulldogs pressure the ball, and considering Carter hasn’t played since Jan. 9, it would be a tough first game back. A&M’s chances will be slim if Carter doesn’t play. Carter’s ability not only to handle the ball but to score once she beats pressure could force Mississippi State to back off. A&M would need a total team effort to beat the Bulldogs without Carter, something that hasn’t happened yet against a quality opponent.
A&M had a bye Thursday, so Carter’s bum ankle received a few more days of treatment, and the extra time helped the team prepare for Mississippi State’s pressure. But the last time A&M had an open date came after the 57-54 loss to LSU in which Carter suffered the injury late in the first half. The hope was Carter would be back in a week to play Kentucky, but she wasn’t as the Aggies lost 76-54. A&M is still waiting on Carter’s return, needing it more than ever.
Carter practiced Thursday with contact.
“Closer,” A&M head coach Gary Blair said of Carter’s possible return. “Closer doesn’t mean it’s done.”
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer was an assistant on the U.S. Pan American Games team this past summer and coached Carter, whom he said is one of the nation’s most explosive players. Schaefer twice during his Thursday press conference said Carter would play Sunday.
“I know she’ll be back for us,” Schaefer said, later adding that he was 110% sure of it. “I don’t think there’s any question she’s going to play.”
Carter is 0-4 against Mississippi State, and Sunday’s game could be her last shot at the Bulldogs. Carter could opt to enter the WNBA draft after the season.
A&M senior point guard Shambria Washington, who is tied with Tennessee’s Jazmine Massengill for the Southeastern Conference lead in assist-to-turnover ratio, will face her stiffest test of the season Sunday against Mississippi State.
“They are just relentless on the defensive end, and they turn turnovers into points,” Blair said. “That’s what we cannot allow to happen or try not to allow to happen. They get you in bunches. You’re right there with them and all of a sudden a blocked shot, a charge taken, a steal and a layup — all energy plays — that makes their crowd get into it.”
Mississippi State has forced at least 23 turnovers a game during its current five-game winning streak. A&M has turned the ball over more than 19 times only once, 22 against Duke, and the Aggies still had a 20-17 edge in point off turnovers in the 79-58 victory.
In Mississippi State’s 92-64 victory over A&M last season, the Bulldogs scored 18 points on 18 turnovers. Two years ago in Starkville, Mississippi, the Aggies had 16 turnovers that the Bulldogs turned into an 16-2 edge in points off turnovers in a 76-55 victory.
The Bulldogs also are good at taking charges (80) and blocking shots (114).
“They take the most charges in the league,” Blair said. “They got a shot-blocker in [Jessika] Carter, and they got the best defensive player in the league in [Jordan] Danberry. They do not have the offensive firepower that they’ve had in the past, but they are doing it collectively as a team. And they’ve got depth at the guard positions.”
Mississippi State was ranked 10th when the NCAA revealed its first top 16 rankings Monday.
The Bulldogs have a favorable schedule remaining to keep that No. 3 seed. It next plays at Kentucky, which has been without guard Rhyne Howard, the league’s leading scorer who is out with a broken finger on her nonshooting hand, though she could be back for next Sunday’s game. Mississippi State’s only other tough game is at 25th-ranked Arkansas (18-5, 6-4) on Feb. 27.
Blair said Sunday’s game is more crucial for the Aggies than the Bulldogs.
“I think it’s always more important for us,” Blair said. “We’ve got to show people who we are. We have to have the confidence. We’ve got to make plays at the end of the game.”
A&M was picked by the coaches to win the SEC, which is highly unlikely but much is still attainable.
“My goal is to keep us healthy and get us hot at the right time to be able to win some of those championships,” said Blair, citing the SEC tournament title, the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, the tournament’s regional title and the Final Four.
Blair, who has been under the weather this week, has never missed a game and said he’ll be ready for No. 1,135 of his career. Junior wing Kayla Wells and Washington also are less than 100%, but Blair said few teams are completely healthy this late in the season.
“You have to learn to get tougher and play through it,” he said.
The 58-year-old Schaefer is a 1984 A&M graduate. He was head coach at Sam Houston State from 1990-97. He was an assistant for Blair at Arkansas (1997-2003) and A&M (2003-12). Mississippi State has won six straight against A&M with five of them by 10 or more points. Blair was 8-0 against Schaefer when Schaefer was at Sam Houston State, but Schaefer is 7-3 against his mentor since going to Mississippi State.