WBB: Sixteen is sweet

Karla Gilbert had a double-double as the Ags dispatched the JMU Dukes - Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

The Women's Bouncy Ball team took care of a pesky James Madison team at Reed Arena to advance to the Sweet 16 in Lincoln next weekend. 16 was also the number of sweet assists that Jordan Jones added to her all-time single season record.

Watching the James Madison Dukes eliminate the 6th Seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs on Sunday, I think a lot of Ags felt a twinge of Battered Aggie Syndrome. JMU guard Kirby Burkholder's 28 points and 18 boards coming off an illness the night before looked like the kind of player who gets "in the zone" and leads their team to a Cinderella run in the dance. JMU also showed it was more than a one-woman team in that game.

In the Monday press conferences, Coach Blair had nothing but good things to say about the Dukes senior:

…the kind of player you live for as a coach that you want to put on your roster.

First half

The Ags went with a starting lineup of Karla Gilbert, Courtney Williams, Tori Scott, Courtney Walker, and Jordan Jones. Tori was started in place of Achiri Ade specifically to shadow Burkholder. In the pregame, Coach Blair talked about how any offense he got from Tori was a bonus.  Although Coach tried to rationalize the idea that the Ags size advantage was overhyped, the start of the game reflected that edge. Karla won the tip. JJ got her the ball in the paint. Karla got the layup from and drew a foul on JMU Senior forward Nikki Newman. But JMU came right back and sprung Burkholder for a trey, and the plan to pound the ball to Karla took a hit when she was called for a phantom foul on a driving layup by Toia Giggetts. Blair sent Karla to the bench and the Ags went small with Achiri Ade taking over the post. JMU surprised me by coming out in man to man, but foul trouble caused them to switch to zone in the first half. Giggets got her second foul at 12:36, and another key moment was at 9:21 when Courtney Williams was fouled by Nikki Newman on a fast break layup. The JMU band likes to chant "Nikki says No" when Newman blocks a shot, but in this case Nikki said something naughty and got a technical. That sent her to the bench with three fouls. CWalk hit the 2 FTs for the tech and then Williams missed the FT on the foul. But Karla (who was back in) got the offensive board on the missed FT and a putback layup. 6 points on one possession gave the Ags a 24-22 lead.  Being up in the crowd at the other end of the floor, I couldn't tell what caused the T. On the replay at ESPN3, you can see Newman bark in the direction of the ref after the foul, but I would argue that he was far enough away to pretend he hadn't heard it. Burkholder would get it back on 3 FTs after being fouled outside the arc, but Walker got the lead on a pair of FTs after Burkholder ran over her on a loose ball. Walker fouled Burkholder on the next possession, sending CWalk to the bench and giving JMU what would turn out to be its last lead of the night on 2 more FTs for Kirby B. A Knox to Williams layup gave the Ags the lead and then Chelsea Jennings hit a midrange jumper to make it a 3 point lead for A&M. The teams traded baskets and FT opportunities in the remainder of the half. Curtyce hit a runner in the lane just before the last timeout at 1:05 to make it 47-43.

A moving pick after the timeout gave the Ags the ball. Curtyce missed a three and JMU set up to run their half court offense. Jones tipped the ball as Angela Mickens drove the lane and Curtyce grabbed the turnover and ran out on a 3 on 1 break. Knox passed to Jones on the right side who passed to Williams streaking down the left of the lane… and Williams missed the layup.  Halftime score 47-43. Not exactly a defensive half! A&M gave up way too many layups but the Dukes also made some nice shots. In the postgame, Jones talked about how they were reaching instead of playing D with their feet. JMU wasn't happy with giving up 47 in a half. The fouls led to the Ags shooting 26 FTs in the first half, and Coach Kenny Brooks talked about fouls forcing them to play more zone than in the game plan and keeping them from being as aggressive as they would have liked.

For the Ags, Karla (12 pts) and CWill (11 pts) both had double digit halves and contributed to the JMU foul woes. At halftime, Burkholder led the Dukes with 12 points and drew many fouls herself, but the Ags depth at guard meant those were shared by Tori, Chelsea, and CWalk. Blair said later that putting Walker on Burkholder was not a good idea.

Second Half

Both teams came out on fire after the intermission. Coach Brooks remarked that you'd think neither Coach taught defense the way the two teams were playing. At one point the scoreboard showed JMU at 50% shooting for the game and the Ags at 59%. But at 56-49 the Ags started getting stops, mainly thanks to Karla's presence in the lane taking away the layups that JMU got in the first half. The Ags attacked in transition and found open looks against the zone.  The lead stretched to 10 before a series of timeouts at 15:40. It was 64-57 at the 11:29 timeout. Then Jones hit Walker and Williams for buckets and added a 3-pointer of her own to make an 8-0 run.

The Ags pulled away as the half wore on and JMU started to run out of gas. But it didn't feel like the game was iced. There was a point where the Dukes went to a press and cut the lead to 7. A long pass to Karla led to a foul. Karla missed both FTs but Williams ran down the rebound and the Ags converted at 6:19. Tori hit a J and Walker followed a Williams miss and the lead went to 13. Jones got her 16th assist on a bounce pass to Karla for a layup from the left side. 15 point lead. 81-66 3:38 left. Timeout JMU. That run iced it. Jones drawing a charge on Burkholder to foul her out with 1:43 left ended the CAA POY's career at JMU. Some in the crowd gave the "left, right" chant, but others of us gave Kirby a standing O.

Final score 85-69.

Post-game thoughts

As the teams left the floor, I noticed Coach Blair taking extra time to talk to Coach Brooks and the JMU players, with some extra time and hugs for the seniors.

The game felt much closer than the 85-69 final. The win was very much a team effort. The gaudy stats were

  • Williams 23 points to lead all scorers
  • Karla's double-double with 20 points, 15 boards, and 2 blocks and many fouls drawn.
  • Walker's 18 points
  • Tori Scott's offense was supposed to be icing on the cake, but this was one of several games this year where Tori was perfect from the field (3-3 and 1-1 from 3 for 7 points)

But there were lots of things that don't show up on the scoreboard. Burkholder got a double-double with 20 points and 10 boards before fouling out late, so it's odd to think of that as the product of a great defensive performance. But in fact, Tori Scott and Chelsea Jennings did a great job of not letting Burkholder take over the game. Kirby went 5-14 shooting and needed to be perfect from the FT line to get her points.

JMU had several other impressive players in addition to Burkholder. I noticed how many of them had strong pull-up jumpers, but I was especially impressed by Jazmon Gwathmey's game. Gwathmey had 14 points on 6-10 shooting.

The game involved a lot of fouls and there were the usual collection of bad calls and non-calls. But to some extent this reflected how intensely both teams were playing. The 27-19 foul disparity in favor of A&M could arguably have been greater; the Ags size advantage led to a lot of the calls. In the first half, the matador D also meant fewer calls against the Ags. The one call I really wonder about is the technical on Newman. The 6 point play was less important than the loss of one of the Dukes' leaders and one of their better defenders.

You can stream a replay from ESPN3.

Elsewhere in Women's March Madness

Lots of NCAAW coverage in general at Swish Appeal, SBN's WBB site. Of more local interest, the SEC has 5 teams in the Sweet 16, with LSU, UK, S. Carolina, and Tennessee joining the Ags in the various regionals. None are actually joining the Ags in Lincoln. Kentucky and Baylor will play a rematch of their multi OT game from earlier this season in the Notre Dame region.

The 2011 National Champs had Baylor in the E8, Stanford in the semis, and Notre Dame in the finals. All three are in the S16. 2011 S16 opponent Georgia didn't make it out of the first round, losing to St. Joes.

Up next: 7 seed DePaul

The Ags expected to play some Blue evil spirits if we got out of the College Station subregional, but we were thinking the Blue Devils instead of the Blue Demons. Duke has been hurt by injuries to the starting and backup point guards, but they were still expected to make the Sweet 16 by most observers, especially playing in Cameron Indoor.  DePaul survived a record-setting track meet with Oklahoma on Saturday and then used a press and 3-point game to knock off the 2 seed. The lack of a point guard meant 21 turnovers against the DePaul press and may have dictated playing zone… not a great idea against an exceptional 3-point shooting team

"We have the greenish green light," guard Brittany Hrynko said. "[Coach] doesn't mind us taking 3s. He said as long as we take them, we have to defend and rebound."

DePaul was 14-33 from behind the arc. Among the Ags opponents, the mad bomber Mutigers only shot 20 3s. In the little that I watched of DePaul-Duke, it seemed like the Dukies could have exploited their size advantage better, but again, the lack of point guards may have affected their ability to use Elizabeth Williams. A&M will play man and has been one of the better 3-point defense teams all year. Another performance like Tuesday's in the paint would go a long way against DePaul. But the D will need to deal with more than 3 pointers:

The game is listed as being a 5:30 start on ESPN, pending the end of the BYU-UConn game.  In Lincoln, where the home team won't be playing. The Huskers-Huskies matchup was derailed by BYU on Monday night.

Gig 'Em!

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