When the NCAA brackets came out, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair knew his team would have to get past top-seeded Baylor to get to the Final Four for the first time.
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Well, when it mattered most, the Aggies finally beat Baylor and All-American Brittney Griner.
After eight consecutive losses to its Big 12 rivals, including the previous three this season, Sydney Carter got Texas A&M off to a fast start and went on to score 22 points in a 58-46 victory over the top-seeded Lady Bears in the Dallas Regional final Tuesday night.
”This was a very special game,” Blair said. ”We didn’t ask to play Baylor, we asked to be recognized for what we accomplished during the year. They chose to put us in the same region. … Both of us could have been in the Final Four, both of us should have been in the Final Four.”
Baylor and Griner, who played in the Final Four last year in the 6-foot-8 center’s freshman season, will have to settle for the Big 12 regular season and tournament trophies the still-young Bears (34-3) already won this season.
The Aggies (31-5) blew a nine-point lead midway through the second half in Waco last month. They squandered a 12-0 start in the Big 12 championship game just more than three weeks ago, two days before the brackets were unveiled with the conference’s top two teams being the top two seeds in the same bracket.
This time, Blair’s team lead from start-to-finish after Carter had a 3-pointer, an assist and a jumper in the game’s first 2 minutes for a 7-0 lead. The Aggies were coming off a 41-point rout two days earlier.
”Once we beat Georgia, the feeling began then,” Carter said. ”There was definitely confidence, an all-around confidence going around the locker room before the game. … We told ourselves this is our game. We were going to come in confident and this was our game.”
Sydney Colson added 12 points for Texas A&M, including some important scores after two free throws by Griner had gotten Baylor within 48-41 with 4 1/2 minutes left.
Colson blew past Griner and missed, but was fouled and made both free throws. Right after that, Colson had a steal and took it all the way for a layup and was fouled again. With the A&M bench going wild, and the stunned Baylor players sitting and staring ahead, Colson finished the three-point play to make it 53-41.
On the same day leading scorer Danielle Adams was named an All-American, she was only a complementary player for the Aggies with another subpar game against Baylor. And that was plenty all right with the 6-foot-1 senior who had only six points – all after halftime.
”I was the happiest person in the world,” Adams said. ”Six points? I mean my teammates had my back.”
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Adams was bouncing around and screaming. Then she got to help cut down the net.
Griner, coming off a 40-point game Sunday against Wisconsin-Green Bay after scoring 30 the game before that, had 20 points and nine rebounds. But she struggled all night shooting, making only 6 of 18 from the field, including a missed dunk attempt. After making all 10 free throw attempts Sunday, she was 8 of 15 against the Aggies.
”Just my shots wasn’t falling,” Griner said. ”It wasn’t anything A&M did. Just poor shooting.”
Melissa Jones, the only senior who played significant minutes for Baylor, scored 13 points and had seven rebounds.
”Nobody likes to play anybody four times. Nobody, it’s no fun,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey. ”I said it yesterday, I’ll say it next week. This is supposed to be March Madness. When you’ve earned a 1 and 2 seed, it’s not fun.”
Texas A&M plays Stanford (33-2), another top-seeded team, on Sunday in the national semifinal.
It is the second Final Four for Blair, who is in his eighth season at Texas A&M and his 26th overall. He took Arkansas to the Final Four in 1998.
As the game ended, Colson pointed to a group close to the court, a bunch of former A&M players who helped set the foundation for Blair.
”We give a lot of thanks to them,” Colson said. ”They were shedding tears in the stands more than us on the court. … They’re the people who also believed in us.”
Blair was also an assistant coach for two national championships at Louisiana Tech in the early 1980s when Mulkey was the point guard there.
Mulkey is the only person to win national championships as a player, assistant coach and head coach. She has 298 victories in her 11 seasons at Baylor, which had never been to the NCAA tournament and was the Big 12’s worst team when she arrived. They won the national title six years ago in Indianapolis.
Baylor matched the lowest scoring first half of the season, 21 same as in its loss at Texas Tech last month. The struggles for Griner started pretty much after she grabbed a rebound when A&M missed its first shot.
Griner missed two shots in the next minute, and in between was the target of a pass that went out of bounds.
Meanwhile, Carter hit a 3-pointer before throwing a long pass to Elonu for a breakaway layup after a Griner miss. Carter was later fouled on a layup, then hit the free throw to put A&M up 12-2 only 5 minutes into the game.
All that while Adams had another bad game against Baylor. She entered the game averaging 22.7 points a game and was shooting 49 percent from the field for the season. She was 3 of 12 on Tuesday and finished 15 of 62 (24 percent) against Baylor with four of her five lowest-scoring games of the season.
About halfway through the first half, Griner missed a free throw. When the ball ricocheted off the back rim right back to her, she punched the ball out of bounds. The referee only smiled when she retrieved the ball.
After Carter hit a 3-pointer that stretched the A&M lead to 22-11, Griner tried to grab some momentum for the Lady Bears. But the standout who has five dunks in her two seasons missed a one-handed try.
Baylor had 20 turnovers, including consecutive possessions in the second half that Texas A&M turned into layups and a 41-27 lead. Colson had a steal and a breakaway layup, then White stole the ball from Griner and passed to Carter for another score.
”Our team has gone through so much. We’ve gone through so many things. We’re here with so much adversity,” Colson said. ”We have so much resilience. We’re the hardest workers in America by far.”