We've got to get mentally tougher … we will get there … we will rise to the occasion.
- Coach Blair at the Monday presser after returning from the Paradise Jam
We learned that we aren't as good as we thought we were. I think it was a good thing because it's so late in November, we don't want to reach our peak right now.
- Jordan Jones
Karla Gilbert called a players only meeting after the losses to tu and Syracuse and the team only watched film of themselves before hosting San Diego State on Tuesday night.
San Diego State 35, Texas A&M 72
The Ags got off to an 11-0 lead before the Aztecs got their first points, and led 31-14 at halftime. It could have been more, but the Ags showed signs of travel fatigue in only shooting 10-26 (38%) in the first half. It also showed in the free throw shooting, where there were some bricks that barely hit the front of the rim. But the shooting was the only place where fatigue showed, as the Ags played with high energy overall, and the shooting % rose to 41% for the game (16-36, 44% after the break). Both Karla Gilbert and Courtney Williams had double-doubles (16 pts-11 reb and 10 pts -12 reb, respectively). Courtney Walker and Chelsea Jennings also reached double digits in scoring and Jordan Jones had a nice night with 10 assists to only one turnover. Jada Terry had her best game, with 4 points, 3 boards, and 2 blocks in just 8 minutes of PT.
It wasn't all good. Tori Scott only played 3 minutes and had 3 turnovers and no points on a missed 3 and 2 missed free throws. Achiri Ade was 1-4 from the field but contributed on D and had 5 boards. Rachel Mitchell still looked like a project in her 5 minutes. I heard someone behind me say: "Rachel looks lost, while Jada looks like she means business". Although Tavarsha Scott-Williams was only 1-4 from the floor, she played with a lot of energy and was really good at moving to post up.
SDSU was held to just 13-56 (23.2%) shooting for the game, and was outboarded 59-31. Guard Ahjahlee Harvey led the Aztecs with 7 points and 5 steals.
The game was Bowtie night in honor of President Loftin. It seemed like there weren't many students there, but posters on TexAgs reported seeing students come for the free bow ties and leave before the game. Bad bull, but maybe they wouldn't have come out if they had known that Loftin was not really returning to his love of teaching, but would be decamping for Mizzou the next day.
Washington 68, Texas A&M 74
Washington came into Reed at 2-2, having started their Texas tour with a 66-55 win at Houston. That was their second win in a row after an 0-2 start for new coach Mike Neighbors. Last year the Huskies were coached by Kevin McGuff, who left to take over at Ohio State. Neighbors got his start in Women's Bouncy Ball at Arkansas where he was hired as Director of Operations by one Gary Blair. The Huskies have an excellent freshman point guard in Kelsey Plum, who arrived averaging 21.4 ppg. Plum is only third on the team in assists, trailing Naismith watchlister Jazmine Davis, and Mercedes Wetmore, the third guard in their normal 3 guard starting lineup.
We were late getting to Reed in the freezing rain, so we missed the ceremony raising a banner for Coach Blair's induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The game itself was an interesting test of his coaching. Coach was clearly frustrated with how the Ags started the game and benched all 5 starters down 12-8 at 12:54 of the first half, by which time the Ags had already turned the ball over 6 times. Curtyce Knox, Chelsea Jennings, Tori Scott, Tavarsha Scott-Williams, and Jada Terry came in for about a minute of game time while the coaches did some attitude adjustment on the bench. When the starters returned at the 11:22 media timeout, it was 15-10 Huskies. Mercedes Wetmore gave the visitors their largest lead a bit later at 17-10, and then the Ags turned up the pressure, took care of the ball (only one more turnover after the starters returned in the half) and retook the lead for good. Courtney Walker hit a 3 with 3 seconds left to give A&M a 36-28 halftime lead.
As the Ags were warming up during the halftime war hymn, I noticed that Jordan Jones had not returned to the floor. Coach Blair explained that JJ being unable to return from the bathroom in time forced him to start Curtyce Knox at the point for the second half. JJ probably didn't think she'd sit for 6:22, but Curtyce used the opportunity to hit two 3-pointers and grab a rebound. Her 6 points were part of a 11-0 run to start the second half. The 19 point lead at 16:49 was the largest for the Ags. The Huskies fought back to within 3 twice, and hung around when the Ags would stretch the lead each time. Jazmine Davis was not unstoppable (7-21 FG means she actually got stopped a lot), but it felt like it as she took each of our guards off the dribble over and over on the way to 24 points. Talia Walton added 15. But the biggest (literally) shocker was freshman forward Chantel Oshahor, who was 2-3 from behind the arc on the way to 9 points. Osahor has the build of the shotput/discus star she was in high school in the Phoenix area, and when she came in, we expected her to live in the paint. So it was unexpected when she stepped back from the top of the key and swished her first 3-pointer. Her second trey cut the lead to 3 the second time.
Blair decided that he needed a small lineup to counter the quickness and perimeter game of the Washington offense, so he sent Karla Gilbert to the bench at the 12:25 mark, and played a lineup with Ade at the post and Williams at the 4. During that stretch CWill hit two 3-pointers to hold the Huskies at bay. With 3:36 to go Mercedes Williams cut the lead to 4. CWill and Knox got it back to 8 as Washington was forced to foul. Talia Walton cut the lead to 6 with 36 seconds to go. Jones then did her best JFF to Evans imitation by hitting a streaking Tori Scott on an inbounds bomb for a layup that was the dagger.
After the game, Coach Blair said that UW stood for "Ugly Win". From my view in the stands that characterization is about right. There was a lot of ragged play and mental errors. Both teams shot under 40% for the game. But there were also flashes of the potential that our Hall of Fame coach is working with. New Washington coach Neighbors also has positives to take away. The Huskies are not a great team, but they are better than their 2-3 record suggests. Their two early losses came with two of their forwards out. Osahor was only playing in her second college game; I think she's destined to be a fan favorite in Seattle.
Up Next: Final Exams and Happy Valley
Coach Blair gave his team a C for the UW game; now they take a break from basketball while tending to academics. When finals end, the team travels to Penn State to take on the #10 Nittany Lions on December 15. Finals at PSU are after that, so the Nittanies will play two more games on the road before coming back to host the Ags.
Although I wrote above that UW is not as bad as their record, neither of this week's opponents is at the level we'll face at Penn State or in SEC play. I have faith that the team will continue to grow and get better; there's a reason that banner was hung at Reed last night. But I wonder and worry about whether we will rise to the occasion quickly or well enough to be the highest seed when we host the NCAAs again in March. Some of the many questions:
- Can we attack the 2-3 zone? We're going to see a lot of it. I've wanted to see better perimeter shooting to stretch the defenses, and the Ags looked good from outside against UW, hitting 8 of 16 from behind the arc. It was especially nice to see Williams and Walker shoot well from outside. Wiliams showed range last year; Walker did not, and adding the threat of the 3-pointer should help both members of the CW network. But Coach Blair pointed out that we are still not there in the other aspect of attacking the zones: ball rotation to the weak side to allow entries to the post. Karla has been able to get some entry passes that were lobbed over the D. That's less likely to work as we play taller teams.
- Post play. Karla has been fine, IMO. She still could be better at setting up in the paint, but she's been playing pretty well, with double-doubles in both games this week. The bigger questions are about the 4 and the backups for the 5. After starting the season really well, Achiri Ade hasn't been playing well. She plays hard but is one of several Ags who tend to force things in the paint, leading to low percentage shots and turnovers. But she's still the best option at the 4 for now. At the 5, we had hoped that Rachel Mitchell would have developed into a solid backup. But whether its related to off-court problems or other issues, it seems like Jada Terry has already passed Rachel on the depth chart. Can either of them step up if Karla gets into foul trouble later in the season?
- Is Courtney Walker pressing? It seems odd to worry about our best player who has scored in double digits in every game since the opener at UNT. But CWalk was not exempted from Blair's benching of all the starters for poor play to start the game. I was surprised to see her not drawing Davis as her defensive assignment and being subbed in an offense-defense situation at the end of the game, where Tori Scott replaced her on D.
- How will Blair juggle the talent at guard? Last year, Adrienne Pratcher seemed to blossom when Lexi Standish left the team. Competition is good overall, but I wonder about players playing tight because they looking over their shoulders at talented subs wanting their court time.
Penn State will be a very tough test, and losing there will not be very informative, just as winning games we should win leaves unanswered questions. They're the higher ranked team for a reason, it's at their place, their place is a pain to get to, and they will have more games against good opponents under their belts. But we owe them from last year and upsetting them in State College would be very sweet. I'm hoping that a week from now, it's the Nittany Lions fans who are pondering unanswered questions.
BTHO Finals, and then Penn State.