The Ags highest seed in an SEC tournament was rewarded with a matchup with a Tennessee team that was #4 in the preseason polls and picked by many for the SEC 2 seed that A&M had obtained. The Lady Vols had struggled to live up to those predictions and the pitchforks were being sharpened for Coach Holly Warlick amid a season with no shortage of off the court distractions.
But Tennessee had finished the regular season with a 20 point win over Georgia to get the 7 seed, and dominated 10 seed Arkansas from the opening quarter on Thursday.
Before the game, Coach Blair said to one of the SECN sideline reporters: "They're Baaaaaack".
Blair stayed with Hillsman, Howard, CWill, Walker, and Jones. The Lady Vols went with Moore, Graves, DeShields, Nared, and Carter. Tennessee started in man D, while the Ags played a 2-3 zone. The Ags got an opening bucket from Walker and raced out to a 6-0 lead, but neither team shot well in the first 5 minutes. It was 8-7 Ags on a 3 point play by Graves before the media timeout at 4:44. At that point the Ags were 4-14 while Tennessee was 3-8. A&M had more shot attempts thanks to 5 offensive boards.
DeShields took the lead for the Vols, and Russell got a putback and was fouled by Anriel to make it 11-8 Tennessee after she missed the FT. CWill drove the right side to cut it to 11-10 off the glass. CWill got another bunny off a fast break turnover to retake the lead. Graves made an acrobatic shot to make it 13-12 but Walker got the last basket of the quarter.
14-13 Ags after 1. CWill led the Ags with 6, Walker had 4. Jones and Hillsman each had 2. Graves led the Vols with 7. Russell had 4 off the bench.
Moore was able to lose Khaalia for a layup to start the second quarter. The Ags couldn't buy a bucket to start the quarter but held the Vols to just the one bucket until Khaalia was able to break the ice off a feed from Anriel at 7:41. Jennings hit a contested fadeaway, but then Carter made a 3 to tie it at 18. Walker untied it quickly off a Hillsman screen. Graves tied it at 20 a few possessions later. The Ags couldn't get a shot off before the shot clock ran out. Tied at 20 at the late media timeout with 3:59 to go in the half.
Curtyce came it after the timeout to give JJ a break. Cooper got a 3 point play on a fast break. Knox, who committed the foul, drove the lane and got a layup and foul to tie it at 23. Danni came in to give CWalk a rest. DeShields hit a step back 3. DeShields drained another jumper to make it 28-23. Timeout Ags. 1:32 remaining.
Jones returned after the timout. The Ags had JJ. Rachel, Danni, Jennings, and CWill in. As the shot clock ran down, JJ drove and drew a foul. 2 FTs cut the lead to 3. JJ tried to draw a charge but was late. Carter's 2 FTs made it 30-25. CWill got called for a double dribble that I really didn't see. Tennessee timeout with 38.1 left. Tennessee turned it over on an unforced bad pass with 20.9 left. Walker drove and drew a foul on DeShields... Walker got away with hooking the defender. 2 FTs made it a 3 point lead. Cooper turned it over trying to score at the end, but there wasn't enough time for the Ags to get another attempt.
30-27 Lady Vols at halftime. Courtney Walker led the Ags with 8 points, but was 3-11 from the field. Courtney Williams was 3-8 for 6 points. Jones and Hillsman added 4 points each. The Ags dismal 28.9 shooting was mitigated by outrebounding Tennessee 24-17. 11 offensive boards and a 7-4 edge in turnovers meant that the Ags took 38 shots to 27 for the Lady Vols.
It stayed close to start the quarter. .Jones hit a pair of FTs to make it 34-33 with 5:55 left. Tennessee brought the ball down and the Ags played strong D to force an airball from the middle of the lane by Graves. Mercedes Russell got the ball before it went out of bounds and fumbled with the ball before getting off a shot after the shot clock hit zero. The buzzer went off but the refs missed the violation. Graves got a rebound and putback and was fouled by Howard. So instead of 34-33 with the Ags in possession, the score was 37-33. You can watch the play in the ESPN videos for the game. At first I thought they had called the foul on the initial shot, but the clock and score showed that the refs just blew the call despite going to the monitor.
It would be tempting to blame what happened later on this play, but although it was the start of a Tennessee run, the play can't be blamed for the Ags turning the ball over on unforced errors on the next two possessions. First Anriel couldn't grab a wide pass from CWill against the trap and kicked the ball out of bounds. Then, after the Ags got a stop, Walker dribbled the ball off her leg trying to run a 1-3 fast break on the outlet. The Ags got yet another stop but Walker missed a baseline jumper and Graves got the rebound.
Khaalia was called for a foul away from the ball and the stoppage was used for the media timeout at 4:52. Rachel got a steal, giving the Ags another chance to cut the lead, but once again, Walker missed an open J. Tennessee fumbled the rebound out of bounds, giving the Ags another chane, but Jones' attempt to lob the inbounds pass to CWill (I think) allowed DeShields to score on a fast break. Rachel got free to answer with a post move.
The Ags had another chance to cut the lead when Anriel rebounded a missed shot and got a quick outlet to JJ. Jones blew past the D ... but missed the layup. A foul on CWill on the counterattack put the Vols up 41-35 from 2 FTs by Nared. CWill turned it over against the press but Tenn couldn't score on the break. But they kept possession and a foul on Rachel allowed Russell to hit 2 FTs to make it 43-35. CWill got a putback on a Walker miss from the left baseline, but Jones turned it over again against the press. The Ags got a stop but CWill turned it over against the press and Middleton made it 45-37. Timeout Ags with 2:31 left.
A Jennings jump shot kept the Ags wthin 6. Jones got a steal but couldn't stay inbounds. Carter hit a jumper. CWill answered. CWill got it to 47-43, but got called for her third foul with 31.6 left. Middleton hit 2. CWill hit a buzzer beater after a series of offensive boards.
49-45 end of 3. CWill scored 8 of the last 10 for the Ags.
The Vols went inside to Graves to draw a foul. 2 FTs got the Vols to 50 first. CWill posted up Carter to answer. Williams got a steal but had to call a timeout when JJ slipped and fell. Out of the timeout Tennessee switched DeShields onto CWill. DeShields scored on the other end to take a 5 point lead. Khaalia picked up her 4th jockeying for position in the middle with Russell. Graves drew a foul on Anriel 2 FTs got the lead back to 7. CWill his a great step back on the baseline with the shot clock running out to get to 20 on the night. DeShields answered on a putback of a long rebound swiped from Rachel. A Graves putback made it a 9 point lead with 5:24 left.
JJ made a strong move on the right side of the lane to get a bank shot and a FT. 58-52. Khaalia fouled out helping on DeShields. With Rachel on 4 fouls, Blair went small with Anriel, Jaz, CWill, Walker, and JJ. With the amall lineup, DeShields was able to find Russell inside to make it 64-56.
With 2:10 left, Walker drew a foul on a jumper. CWalk cut the lead to 64-58. Tennessee turned it over with 1:46 to go. There was a delay as the refs reviewed the call. After the delay, Jones drove out of control and turned it over on a bad pass. The Ags turned DeShields lose while trying to apply pressure. Jennings got the two back. Timeout Ags with 1:11 left. 66-60. Last timeout.
Jennings fouled DeShields as the Ags pressed. 68-60. Walker turned it over trying to hit Anriel. That was essentially the ball game. Tennessee scored again on another breakdown as the Ags tried to press.
Final score 70-60 Tennessee
Tennessee played very well. We did a lot of things well. I was proud of my team. We competed hard. We controlled the boards.
But when you shoot 28% in the first half, end up with 35% for the game, that hurts.
We missed a lot of shots that we normally hit. Particularly Walker. I thought we really had a chance in the second half when all of a sudden I called Williams' play. Two times in a row she nails the shot. I called two more. She missed two layups.
But that just comes with pressure, that comes from defense, and that comes from the length that they had. Sometimes it's hard to make those shots.
- Coach Blair in the postgame
Although the results were similar, I agree with Coach Blair that the effort put out by the Ags was very different from the loss to Kentucky on Sunday. The similarities were that both opponents showed that things we can get away with against lesser teams stop working when the competition gets better. Both Kentucky (who dominated Florida to move on) and Tennessee are teams with top 10 talent who struggled at times but seem to be playing to their potential at the right time. And both teams frustrated Courtney Walker.
- Courtney Williams led the Ags with 20 points. 14 of those came in the second half, where she kept the Ags in the game by shooting 7-12. Williams added 5 rebounds, and a steal, but also committed 5 turnovers.
- Courtney Walker had 12 points, but was only 4-16 from the field and 1-5 in the second half. She had only 1 rebound and 1 assist, and turned the ball over 4 times. There were some reports that Walker was wearing a boot this week, so perhaps she's at less than 100%. It was still the 103rd time Walker has scored in double figures in her career, and it moved her into second place all-time with 1,942 points. Takia Starks 1,977 is still catchable, but a win would have given CWalk another game to try for the all-time points lead and perhaps the 2,000 point club.
- Jordan Jones had 9 points, 7 assists, and a steal, but committed 5 turnovers. JJ was 2-8 from the field. The 3 senior stars accounted for all 14 of the Ags turnovers.
- After focusing on boxing out in practice after getting outrebounded badly on Sunday, the Ags outrebounded the Lady Vols 42-31. A&M had 19 offensive boards for the game. Khaalia Hillsman had 11 boards while Anriel Howard had 8. The Ags were perfect from the FT line, but only got 12 attempts to 24 for the Vols.
- Tennessee was led by Diamond Deshields (21 points, 6 boards) and Bashaara Graves (19 points, 7 rebounds). DeShields and Graves were both 7-11 from the field. Although the Ags missed a lot of open looks, Tennessee's defensive intensity was a big factor. Tennessee blocked 5 shots, which I think led to some anxious misses inside at various times.
Up Next: Selection Monday
Now we wait.
The Ags will be in the tournament, but the question is whether the loss, combined with whatever else happens in Women's Bouncy Ball around the country, will mean we get to host at Reed or have to hit the road for the first rounds. The Ags were #15 in the AP and #17 in RPI before the game, but were thought to be a 4 seed. Three teams above the Ags were also upset on Friday, as Arizona State lost to Cal, Florida State lost to Miami, and Stanford lost to Washington.
The Women's selection show is on Monday, March 14 at 6PM on ESPN. The Ags will have watch party at the Cox-McFerrin Center.