COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) When Gary Blair took over as coach at Texas A&M in 2003, he heard about an elementary school girl in town named Karla Gilbert who he should keep on his radar.
A few years later he signed the 6-foot-5 Gilbert but she spent the first three years of her career as a reserve, stuck behind stars Danielle Adams and Kelsey Bone.
This year has been a breakout season for Gilbert, and the senior leads the No. 3 seed Aggies against No. 14 seed North Dakota, which is making its tournament debut, in the NCAA first round on Sunday.
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”She’s one of the most good-natured kids I’ve ever coached in my life,” Blair said of Gilbert. ”She’s gotten better and better. We’ve been surprised this year at her stamina – how many minutes she can play.”
Gilbert, who is averaging 27.8 minutes a game, has started each game and is averaging 11.3 points and 7.4 rebounds, both career-highs. She also set the school’s single-season record for blocked shots with 59 this season.
She is one of two players remaining from Texas A&M’s team which won the national title in 2011 and doesn’t lack confidence in this group.
”I’m expecting us to dominate no matter what the situation,” Gilbert said. ”Hopefully we’re able to show up like we’re supposed to.”
Texas A&M is making its ninth straight tournament appearance and is playing the opening round at home for the third consecutive year.
It’s a big test for a North Dakota team which won the Big Sky Conference tournament to become one of five women’s teams in the tournament for the first time. Coach Travis Brewster is proud of his players for making history by reaching the tournament, but knows they aren’t satisfied with simply being here.
”It’s going to be a tough game,” he said. ”That’s just the way it is.”
The winner will face either sixth-seeded Gonzaga or 11th-seeded James Madison in the second round on Tuesday night.
BLAIR LEADS WELCOME WAGON: Blair is the oldest coach in this regional and has been a head coach since 1985. He takes pride in reaching out to younger coaches and providing any help they need and called all three coaches playing in College Station to congratulate them on making the tournament and extend a welcome to the city.
FAR FROM HOME: Gonzaga has played the first round of the NCAA tournament in its home state of Washington each year since 2009. Not this time. The Bulldogs traveled more than 2,000 miles to College Station. They weren’t upset about it though. Many of the players had never been to Texas and were excited to visit the Lone Star state. ”We were very fortunate to play in front of the great fans at home in Spokane,” Gonzaga’s Jazmine Redmon said. ”We’re really excited to play in front of these Texas fans though. We heard they love women’s basketball.”
ADDED BENEFIT: North Dakota was thrilled with making the tournament for the first time and all the frills that came along with it, namely taking a chartered flight instead of flying commercial. They were initially disappointed to be playing in College Station instead of the much-closer regional in Iowa City, Iowa. But when they got to town on Friday, their misgivings evaporated immediately. ”It’s great to be in the warm weather,” North Dakota’s Madi Buck said. ”We left in a snow storm, so when we got off the plane all of us were just soaking in the sun.”
LOOKING IN THE MIRROR: James Madison and Gonzaga are very similar teams. So similar in fact that Graves and Brooks have had a good time joking about it. ”When we watch tape of each other, it looks like an intra-squad scrimmage,” Graves said with a laugh. Brooks agreed and called Gonzaga a ”mirror image” of his team.
KIRBY’D: James Madison’s Kirby Burkholder, the Colonial Athletic Association’s player of the year, is so dangerous from 3-point range that the school’s band invented a word for when she makes a 3-pointer. The band and crowd chants: ”You got Kirby’d.” They had plenty of opportunities to use the chant this season as Burkholder led the league with 106 3-pointers.