March 30, 2021
Reflections on Texas A&M after a Sweet 16 defeat
'This year means more to me as a coach than any team I have ever coached'
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It would have been the storybook endings to end all storybook endings.
Instead, the cruelest of plot twists occurred and the Texas A&M women’s basketball team found itself with a most undesirable alternative ending.
Instead, a 74-59 loss to No. 3 Arizona in Sweet Sixteen action Saturday night loss closed the door on what the Aggies — and their ever-present “12th man supporters” were hoping was another title run, 10 years after their first and only in 2011.
“We were America’s team for a while. We wanted to be that little team that could and we just didn’t get it done,” head coach Gary Blair said postgame. “They were a step quicker the whole night.
“Give Arizona so much credit. They won it. We faced a great, great player in Aari McDonald. When they made their roll, we couldn’t answer back because of our turnovers.
“We looked like the younger team and they looked like the veteran team.”
But A&M was the veteran team; using the same starting lineup of Aaliyah Wilson, Jordan Nixon, Kayla Wells, N’dea Jones and Ciera Johnson in every game this season. A lineup of four veteran, battle-tested seniors — and one gutsy transfer — that fought, clawed and battled through a Covid-ravaged season to lead the Lady Aggies to the SEC regular season championship earlier this month.
But the Lady Aggies have struggled some since winning the SEC championship. There have been a few defensive lapses and other minor details but they hung together and found their way into the Sweet 16, complete with a couple of dramatic endings.
Fate seemed on their side until they ran into starving Arizona team looking to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history, one that subsequently reached its first Final Four Monday night.
In the end the Wildcats’ combined pressure defense, speed and quickness and capitalization off Aggie turnovers was too much for A&M to overcome.
‘We did what we could. We played our hearts out. The result is what it was,” said Wilson who was the team’s leading scorer Saturday night with 17 points. She added 10 rebounds and finished with her third double-double of the season.
“At times we got ahead of ourselves. They were getting us into the tempo that they wanted and trying to get back into our game is what messed us up,” Wilson continued. “We just didn’t answer [back] as much as we should have. We didn’t adjust as well as we could have and hats off to them, they pulled out the win.”
Blair was candid about the pressure from Arizona and how it prevented them from “playing their game” resulting in the end of the seasons.
“Arizona had their hands in everything. They didn’t let us run our fluid offense and the pressure — we didn’t handle it well,” he said. “Our strength is getting four people in double-figures and sharing the basketball. We were doing it early. We got out of that. We started playing too much one on one basketball and that’s on me.
“Sometimes you gotta play through contact because they let you play more in the NCAA tournament. As a coach and as a player you got to learn how to play through it and we didn’t, play through it very well but Arizona did.”
The nails in the coffin, Blair continued, were the turnovers. A&M won the rebound battle 37-29; but lost the turnover battle, 19-8, resulting in 28 points for the Wildats.
“They won the game because of turnovers. Turnovers can kill you. You can overcome the missed free throws or blown layups,” Blair said. “But you cannot overcome the turnovers.”
The Aggies finished the 2020-21 season with a 25-3 overall record (13-1 in SEC play) and a 2-1 NCAA Tournament performance. They are now 29-16 in NCAA Tournament games all-time. Blair, a finalist for Coach of the Year, now holds an 838-333 record all-time with a 430-170 mark in College Station. In the NCAA Tournament, the Women’s Basketball Hall-of-Famer is now 41-25.
His four starting seniors — Wilson, Wells, Jones and Johnson — have decisions to make. Several are working on their master’s degrees and should be graduating in the summer and none have yet to declare for the draft. There’s also that NCAA extra year of eligibility (due to Covid) granted to athletes who play winter and fall sports.
Then there’s floor general Nixon, who’ll be a junior next year, along with junior Zaay Green, who made a little noise this season as well as a handful of tough freshmen players. Should most or all return, A&M’s future is bright.
“This team is beautiful. We had zero problems all year,” Blair said. “That’s the character and chemistry and who we bring into this program. We’ve got some talented kids coming back next year with a lot of leadership. We’ve got four freshmen who gave me everything they had this year knowing that they were no going to have minutes and we’ve got three very good freshman in next year.
“Then when you look at what Jordan Nixon did, she had a great year. She became y’all’s darling — the media darling — and she has brought a lot of attention to Texas A&M,” Blair said. “What a young lady to have coming back.
“And I’ve got five working five working on master’s degrees. If they decide to come back, I guarantee I’ll love every damn one of them. We’ll toss it up and do it again.”
After the loss, Wilson was asked about her plans. She was learn that she’ll need a little time. “I’ll sit down, take some time, put it into perspective then sit down with family and talk and make decisions hopefully soon.”
Regardless of her decision, Wilson said she has loved every bit of her time at A&M.
“This team was probably my favorite team for sure in the four years I’ve been here,” said Wilson. “It was a really special year and a really special group of girls. We accomplished a lot of things that I don’t think people didn’t expect us to. We remained the underdog the whole year and kept proving people wrong.
“I wish we could’ve kept doing it here in the tournament.
“We made history this year here on and off the court,” Wilson continued. “I don’t think I could sum up in a sentence — I’d be going on for a minute — trying to sum up what this year meant to me, as a team and a family. These girls are special. We’re not done yet. We have a really good group of younger girls coming that’s been waiting their turn and that helped make us better all year.”
They fell short of their championship goals but the year was still a success, Blair said, a year that was more special — in his eyes — than 2011.
“This year means more to me as a coach than any team I have ever coached because of what these young people have had to go through (with the pandemic),” Blair said. ‘Winning the national championship was great but that championship team did not have to go through this and what all the people in our country have had to go through. There will be a thousand books written on this.
“What these young ladies have gone through this year — they never opted out of a game — the sacrifices that these 18-to-23 year-olds had to make is unbelievable and it’s probably the same a lot of other coaches too. I am so proud of my team, particularly my seniors, who have given me their all the last four years.”
And what did he tell the team as they walked off the court for the last time this season on Saturday night?
“When I got to the locker room we didn’t talk about the game itself, we talked about what this team had overcome and gone through.
“That was my message: just a thank you. “