Texas A&M women’s basketball coach Gary Blair has more on his mind than Georgia as the 16th-ranked Aggies play the Lady Bulldogs at 6 p.m. Thursday in Georgia’s Stegman Coliseum.
“I look forward to this ballgame, because I think we’re in the midst of going on a streak,” Blair said. “Our kids are playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
A&M (20-5, 8-4) has won back-to-back games since junior guard Chennedy Carter returned after missing five weeks with a Grade 2 ankle sprain. The Southeastern Conference’s preseason player of the year scored 37 points in Sunday’s 73-71 victory at 25th-ranked Tennessee that moved the Aggies into a third-place tie with LSU (18-6, 8-4), 22nd-ranked Arkansas (20-5, 8-4) and 14th-ranked Kentucky (19-5, 8-4) with four games left in the regular season.
A&M’s goal once Carter went out was to finish in the league’s top four, “and then take our chances when we get to the SEC tournament and the NCAA tournament,” Blair said. Those chances seem improved after Carter’s performance that earned her co-SEC player of the week.
Top-ranked South Carolina (25-1, 12-0) and ninth-ranked Mississippi State (22-4, 10-2) appear to be locks for half of the league’s top four spots. The Aggies are in great shape for one of the remaining spots, because they play three straight teams with losing conference records. The Aggies will return home to play Auburn (9-14, 3-9) and Alabama (14-11, 4-8) after Georgia (14-11, 5-7), a place where the Aggies have won three of five games, but the last three games have all been decided by 10 or less points.
“As soon as you start patting yourself on the back in this league, you get kicked in the butt, and that’s just what we can’t afford to do,” Blair said.
Because of losses to Vanderbilt (13-12, 3-9) and Missouri (6-19, 3-9), Georgia is likely to miss the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years barring a miraculous finish.
“Georgia has put themselves in a situation where this is a must-win [game] for them,” Blair said. “Georgia realizes probably to make the NCAA tournament they need to go 3-1 during this time to get to 8-8.”
Georgia’s chances of upsetting A&M start with 5-foot-6 junior guard Gabby Connally, who is averaging 12.3 points per game this season. The San Antonio native has flourished against the Aggies, averaging 25 points in three games. She had 20 points in Georgia’s 64-63 loss to the Aggies on Jan. 30 at Reed Arena.
“We need to slow down their guards, particularly Connally, who always seems to have a great game against us,” Blair said.
A&M, which didn’t have Carter in the first meeting with Georgia, is as healthy as it has been in SEC play, Blair said.
Against Tennessee, the Aggies leaned heavily on Carter, who was making her first start since Jan. 9. She responded by hitting 10 of 22 field goals, but hopefully, she won’t have to carry the bulk of the scoring Thursday, Blair said.
“We need to get our post players more involved in this game against Georgia, because sizewise we match up against them very well,” Blair said.
Georgia 6-4 junior center Jenna Staiti and 5-10 senior forward Stephanie Paul combine to average 16.8 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, while A&M 6-4 junior center Ciera Johnson and 6-2 junior forward N’dea Jones average 24.2 points and 18.3 rebounds.
With all of its starters at least 6-0, Tennessee limited Johnson and Jones to 4-of-11 shooting in their first meeting. Carter got support from senior point guard Shambria Washington, who hit 3 of 4 field goals including a pair of 3-pointers. But junior wing Kayla Wells hit only 3 of 15 field goals, her second-worst effort of the season.
“She had great shots,” Blair said. “She knocks them down every day in practice. We kept calling her number. I was hoping to get either her or [Aaliyah] Wilson hot to be able to take some pressure off Chennedy.”
Wells ended with eight points, snapping a string of eight straight games in double figures. Wilson, who started when Carter was out, didn’t score. She had scored in 13 straight games, including at least 10 points in the last three. A&M will need just as much defense as offense from its guards, if not more, against the perimeter-oriented Bulldogs.
“We look at their guards knowing they’re playing for their NCAA life,” Blair said. “We’ve got eight wins. We’re paying for seeding. We’re playing for confidence, playing for building, trying to get four guys in doubles figures in every game.”
NOTES — A&M is ranked 14th in the NCAA’s RPI, which the NCAA tournament selection committee will use in helping determine the 64-team field. The Aggies are the third-highest SEC team behind No. 2 South Carolina and No. 11 Mississippi State. Georgia is No. 83. ... ESPN’s Charlie Crème has A&M as a No. 5 seed in his latest Bracketology. Missouri State, Indiana and Florida State are the other No. 5 seeds. Iowa, Gonzaga, Oregon State and Northwestern are the No. 4 seeds.