The Aggie men’s basketball team was looking to carry some positive momentum out of Vegas, but they faced a stiff test on Wednesday night in the form of Notre Dame. Buzz Williams was facing a familiar foe in Mike Brey’s senior laden squad that would pose a serious challenge for the Ags. However, the Aggies overcame a cold start from the field and a horrendous night from the free throw line to pick up a 73-67 victory over the team rated #40 in the country by kenpom.com.
The first 15 minutes of the game were back and forth, with the Irish maintaining a small lead of 5 points or less. However, as the game neared halftime, a cold stretch for A&M and a slew of missed shots gave Notre Dame an opportunity to double their lead to 10 points going into halftime. A&M shot 9-28 from the field in the first half, including 3-9 from behind the arc. The Aggies made only 1 of their 5 free throws in the opening period, compared to a 9 for 15 half for the Irish. While Notre Dame was able to get to the line at a significant clip, the pace and flow of the game didn’t appear to be too much for the Aggies. A&M limited themselves to 7 turnovers in the first half; this isn’t meant to portray 7 turnovers in 20 minutes as a crowning achievement, but it left you with the feeling that if they could start hitting shots and turn up the pressure on Notre Dame defensives, the Aggies would have a very real chance to get back into the game.
Unfortunately, the opening 5 minutes of the second half seemed to squash any hopes for a comeback with more missed shots from the field and the free throw stripe. By the time the Irish took a 41-27 lead with 16:40 to go in the game, the Aggies’ win probably had slipped to 6.1%. However, a line change substitution that brought the second string onto the floor seemed to spark the Aggies, who began swarming the Irish guards on the perimeter with traps and attacking the lane with dribble penetration. These higher percentage shots started to fall, and Wade Taylor drained both of the Ags’ only three point attempts at critical junctures to keep the momentum surging in A&M’s direction. By the time the clock ticked under 12:00 remaining, the lead had been cut to single digits for good. A pair of free throws by Hassan Diarra just 4 minutes later gave the Aggies their first lead of the game at 55-54, and they would not trail for the rest of the game. Despite an abysmal night at the free throw line, Buzz’s team made enough plays down the stretch to outlast the Irish.
Quenton Jackson once again led A&M in scoring with 18 points. Hassan Diarra and Wade Taylor also contributed 17 and 14 points, respectively, off the bench. The Aggies’ depth played a critical role, allowing Buzz to weather a storm of fouls called against his team in the first half. Notre Dame’s 7-man rotation struggled with foul trouble down late in the second half, ending the game with one player fouled out and three others nursing 4 fouls each. After the early shooting struggles, A&M finished shooting 49.1% from the field. Unfortunately, the struggles from the free throw line only marginally improved, finishing the game 14-29. While the Aggies “lost” the battle on the boards by 6, this can be attributed to the numerous opportunities that the Fighting Irish had to collect missed Aggie free throws.
To put this win in perspective, Wisconsin, A&M’s opening opponent is currently ranked #32 in the kenpom.com rankings. While A&M lost to the Badgers by 11, the Aggies led by 16 in the first half of that contest. This team has shown that they have the talent and ability to play with teams in the top 50 nationally, and this win over the Irish showed that the Aggies can close a game out down the stretch against the top tier.
Speaking of Wisconsin, the Badgers won the Maui Jim Invitational, defeating Saint Mary’s 61-55 in the championship after dispatching AP #15 Houston 65-63 (KenPom #5) the night before. If A&M finds itself in contention for the NCAA tournament at the end of the year, the Wisconsin loss doesn’t appear to be a major black mark on the Aggies’ record.
Next up for A&M is a home game on Tuesday night against Buzz Williams’s former team, the University of New Orleans. We’ll have a preview of that game tomorrow.