In front of a terrific home crowd of 6,432 cheerful fans at Reed Arena, the Aggies' starting lineup against the University of Tennessee Volunteers began with Alex Caruso, Kourtney Robertson, Jamal Jones, Shawn Smith, and Antwan Space, and up until the 12:50 mark of the first half, both teams played evenly—badly. Call it nerves or a lack of confidence, as the Aggies (15-11, 6-7 SEC) looking at Tennessee (16-10, 7-6 SEC) both teams were looking for a win. Both Billy Kennedy and Cuonzo Martin are in their third years as head coach at their schools. Question was, who could exit today with a win?
At first it looked like things were going all Tennessee’s way. Missed shots and the Ags’ rotten rebounding early made it appear that Tennessee senior guard Jordan McRae might just get his hoped-for 75th victory of his career. But then there was the “Antwan Space” factor, which had been a nightmare to Tennessee just a month ago in Knoxville. Space was the one who made the game winning shot when the Aggies played Tennessee in their own back yard in January. Still, so many games had passed since then, it was anyone’s guess who had the “x” factor to win.
At the 12:50-minute mark of the first half, the score was an underwhelming 5–4. Aggies shooting was 25% to Tennessee’s 22%, with Jamal Jones having one 3-pointer and Kourtney Roberson with one bucket. Early on, Kourtney put a lot of pressure on himself to score, and ended up missing two easy ones trying to cram the ball through the hoop.
A bigger factor in Tennessee’s favor early on were the rebounds. Aggies were not doing well at all on offensive rebounding. Tennessee was like superglue under the basket. Even when Jamal Jones tried to get his own rebound, there were three Tennessee players right there, maneuvering to take possession.
Coach Kennedy substituted in Fabyon Harris, Jordan Green and Tavario Miller to see what kind of offense the Aggies could generate. The fans found themselves still waiting for the game to begin after 11:36 of play.
More lineup changes brought a combination of Antwan Space, Fabyon Harris, Tavario Miller, Jordan Green and Shawn Smith made a good impression and started some momentum going. Second efforts were given by each player, especially Tavario Miller.
Shawn Smith went coast to coast on a rebound on a 3-point Tennessee miss and the Volunteers struggled on their own attempt to answer. Jordan Green ramped up his speed and just bulled his way into the basket to bring the score to 11-6. This was surely the best on player combination the Aggies had seen so far. It was just a matter of trading baskets with the Aggies scoring and Tennessee answering one-for-one.
When Shawn Smith tried another basket, and missed, no one was left to fight for the rebound. All the Aggies left the scene and had headed down the court, leaving four Tennessee players fighting for the defensive rebound. This was a scenario played out over and over for the first part of the game. In the first 13 minutes of the game score was tied at 11, surreal.
Alex Caruso contributes heart and sweat and a lot of assists, even when he’s not got a hot shooting hand. Caruso got the the ball to Fabyon Harris, who landed his first 3-pointer and the crowd responded enthusiastically. At last Monday’s “Wings ‘N More” radio broadcast, Coach Kennedy told Dave South that his young Aggie team really played their best when they had a strong home crowd supporting them. It was wonderful to look up in the stands and see so many Aggies there to support there team, well up into the second deck. That’s the kind of 12th Man support that is required to get this team over their self-doubt.
After Tennessee answered with another basket, Caruso got his first bucket of the game by flying in for a layup, as he determined to make a solid contribution today. Kourtney Roberson made a key steal and raced down the court to dunk it right through the net. When Kourtney got a foul called on Tennessee’s next play, that was merely one more in a series of referee calls that would appear unfair to an admittedly biased Aggie fan base, but even the Aggies got a bench warning from the referees for protesting. Tennessee made both their free throws and Dylan Johns came in to let Kourtney cool off.
At this point Jarnell Stokes led Tennessee with 10 points of Tennessee’s 17 points, plus 7 rebounds, and the most the Aggies had was 3 rebounds from Tavario Miller. Fans were all waiting for the Aggie offense to show up. Sure enough, it did, courtesy of a strong game from Fabyon Harris.
Tennessee had moved within 2 when Fabyon Harris got his second 3-pointer from the right side of the court, but that joy was short-lived when Tennessee’s Josh Richardson answered with a 3-pointer, which moved the score up to 22 to 20. Halftime was quickly approaching.
Jamal Jones missed a bucket, then Tennessee grabbed the rebound—again—and the referees made a controversial foul call on Jordan Green. It appeared that Tennessee was at fault for traveling but they shot a free throw and went up over the Aggies, 25-24. The Aggies missed on their next shot, then Tennessee missed their shot, and the Aggies called a time out with 52 seconds left in the first half.
The Ags had gained possession on an airball by Tennessee. Tavario Miller tried a shot, but Richardson got the foul in trying to block the ball. Tavario Miller missed both free throws and with 38 seconds to go, Tennessee went down the court to run the clock down. Maymon made his basket and the Aggies tried a last-minute 3-pointer by Caruso, which didn’t go. The first half ended 27-24, favor of Tennessee, with the Aggies shooting 35.7% and Tennessee shooting 39.3%. It was an underwhelming first half, but there was always hope left for the second half.
The second-half lineup included Caruso, Roberson, Jones, Space, and Smith, and that was a good choice, as Jamal Jones hit a 3-pointer that willed itself to go in, to tie the game at 27. After about 5 minutes of play, the Aggies were up by 1, 34-33, Alex Caruso had reached 4 rebounds and 6 assists to go with his 7 points. Fabyon Harris came in to replace Caruso.
Tennessee had a 3-second violation but that didn’t help the Aggies as Tennessee stole the ball back and screamed down the court for another easy bucket taking the lead, 35-34. Antwan Space fought for the ball and got a foul instead, but Tennessee kept hanging in there, determined. Maymon got a put-back to give Tennessee the lead by 3 with 13:44 left, 37-34, when Fabyon Harris tied the game with a 3-pointer, his third of the game, and the crowd went wild as Roberson recovered a rebound on a Tennessee miss. The crowd was getting every penny’s worth of excitement, at last.
Kourtney Roberson settled down and settled in, making sure he didn’t overdunk, and grabbed his 8th point of the afternoon. Josh Richardson of Tennessee showed tremendous confidence as he shot over two Aggies inside the paint. The Aggies didn’t have their hands up to try and block the ball, though, and that matters in rebounding.
Aggies were up 42-39 with 10 minutes left, when Tennessee scored and picked up a foul attempt on Tavario Miller, but didn’t make the extra bucket. The lead, though, was down to 1 point when Antwan Space, who’d been playing solid defense the entire game, got a 3-point bucket, but Tavario Miller had a foul called on his play.
At this point, Stokes, Maemon and McRae each had 12 points, showing depth. It was looking tough for the Aggies, as they attempted a bucket was and the ball looked like it was just about to get picked off. But then, Caruso flew in out of nowhere to grab the ball and dunk it, and on the next play, Caruso turned around and stole Tennessee’s ball and dunked it again. The Aggie crowd flew up off their seats and cheered. Both of Alex Caruso’s parents celebrated in the stands by texting or typing on their smart phones, smiling all the time. Kourtney Roberson’s and Alex Caruso’s steals and coast-to-coast dunks tied for the What-a-burger plays of the game.
Tennessee’s McRae answered with a 3-pointer, but Kourtney Roberson weighed in with a basket to keep the lead up by 5, 51-46. Tennessee made a free throw off a foul call, and the Aggies had just 6 minutes left to seal this game. Jordan Green rose to the challenge as he flew up on a pro-hop move and got a basket to increase the Aggie lead to 6.
Antwan Space blocked Tennessee’s shot and then got the ball back; Kourtney Roberson left the game with 4 minutes to go. Fabyon Harris brought the crowd to its feet with a bucket and Antwan Space grabbed a defensive rebound with a little over 3 minutes left. Jamal Jones missed a 3-pointer and Tennessee had a missed opportunity as well. Fabyon Harris got knocked to the ground and it was time out, 55-49 with 3:20 left. Fabyon made both free throws and the Aggie lead was 8 points. Tennessee’s McRae had 18 points in the game at this point, and Tennessee’s Stokes had stalled out at 12 points but had 13 key rebounds. The Aggies’ Space led the way with 6 rebounds at this point.
With 1:16 to go, the Aggies needed another basket to seal this game with the score 57-53, and 76 long, long seconds left to move off the clock. Shades of their last matchup in Knoxville. The Aggies played fast-pitch passing on the inbounds to draw Tennessee fouls. Jamal Jones made both free throws and moved the lead back to 6 with 1:07 left. Maymon dunked the ball and Jamal missed what looked to be a picture-perfect layup with no one to interfere with him.
Stokes rebounded for the 16th time and Tennessee had the ball to throw in with 29.2 seconds left in the game, the score then 59-55. Caruso fouled, sending Stokes to the line. Stokes then successfully made both free throws and crunched the Aggie lead down to 2 points with 25.6 seconds left. Space got the ball into Green, who threw it to Jones, who was about to be cornered, when the Aggies called time out with 18.6 seconds left. Everyone was finally starting to stand and yell. Again, 4 more seconds ticked off the clock when Tennessee fouled Alex Caruso. At the line you can usually count on AC, but he missed the 1-1.
A 3-point miracle shot went through for Josh Richardson and Tennesseee was about to win the game, but miracle of all miracles, the Tennessee bench had called time out beofre Richardson shot the ball. After a review period where everyone and their brother was on their feet in Reed Arena waiting for the officials’ answer, the official ruling was that time out was called 2.4 seconds before end of regulation play. Tennessee was about to inbound the ball when Texas A&M called time out. Finally, everyone got up on their feet.
With 2.4 seconds left, Jarnell Stokes got the layup to tie the game and send the game into overtime, tied 59-59, but Alex Caruso had also earned his fifth foul on that last Tennessee shot. So, the game still wasn’t over. It was ruled that there was 00.8 seconds left on the clock and that sent Tennesssee’s Jarnell Stokes to the line. With 16 points, Stokes missed the free throw, and a second opportunity for Tennessee to get this game in the win column was dashed, much to the relief of the Aggie fans. The atmosphere in Reed was surreal! Overtime ensued.
The initial phases of overtime were reminiscent of much of the first half of play, trading baskets and not much fuel left in the gas tank. With 30 seconds to go and just 1 second left on the shot clock, Fabyon Harris didn’t try a layup; he got it to Jordan Green for the jumper, taking the score to 65-63, favor Aggies. Tennessee called a time out. The crowd got back up on their feet with the yell leaders helping encourage them. The Hullabaloo band played as intensely as they’d ever played all season long. Tennessee tried to go in for the basket but Kourtney Roberson got nailed for his fifth foul, and he limped off the court as he’d truly given this game everything he had. Shawn Smith came in to replace him.
Tennessee’s Antonio Barton made the first free throw and then the second, and the game was tied with just 15.5 seconds left in overtime. Fabyon Harris got the ball across the line and with 8 seconds to go, A&M called a time out, tied at 65 each.
Jamal Jones inbounded the ball to Antwan Space who got a 3-pointer with 1.6 left on the game. History had repeated itself when Space hit the winning ‘3’ again at the end to give the Aggies the win. Space had made two baskets the entire game, both 3’s, but he made them when it counted the most. The entire Aggie crowd was out of its mind with joy.
Dylan Johns came in to block the inbounds pass from Tennessee and guess who got the ball on the court-long pitch? You guessed it, Antwan Space. The game ended 68-65 in overtime. Antwan threw the ball so high in the air that it almost hit the jumbotron! The Texas Aggie victory was as sweet as any game has been all season long. The Aggie players all gathered up in the student section to “Saw Varsity’s Horn’s off with their student fans, and really no one wanted to leave Reed Arena, after witnessing the best game of the year.
Postgame quotes from a visibly weary Cuonzo Martin included his softly saying that it was a “hard fought game down to the wire, his team did a great job battling back but just came up short.”
Of that controversial time out call, Martin explained that he called out to get his team into into a good set. The offense was “scrambling out there, and he tried to get a good look.” That was not the play they intended to run. Official was right there and heard the time-out call correctly. Martin said he thought “Josh did a great job getting the ball to Jarnell, who did a great job of catching the ball.” This was a tough loss for Tennessee who had actually played harder than the Aggies did for most of the entire game.
Antwan Space and Fabyon came into the postgame press conference and for two kids who should have been elated, they were grounded, humble and grateful. Modestly, Antwan said, “Coach just drew up a play for me. My coaches had confidence in me, so I had it in myself. I want to thank my coach for drawing up the play. As soon as it was out of my hands I felt it....it was a crazy shot. Even the Tennessee players said it was a crazy shot.”
Fabyon Harris had a great game with 13 points and 3 rebounds, 2-2 on free throws and 3-3 on 3-pointers. Harris said, “Coach (Kennedy) sent me a text the other night. It said, ‘I know this year has not been not what you were expecting...just keep playing through things and good things will happen.’and so I gave it my best today.”
Space said, “Playing at home, the support that we get from the fans knowing they’re behind us, our comfort level is higher. I think the last game was a turning point. We were trying to get back-to-back wins.”
It’s also a subtle inside look at the time that Coach Kennedy spends working on the positive attitudes of his players, helping to get them up when they’re down on themselves and it’s an approach that has earned Kennedy the respect of all of his players, who admire him like no other, playing hard because he respects them as well as teaches them.
Coach Kennedy said, “We’ve been through some ups and down with our program. I told my guys, “you’ve gotta believe. Jamal was kind of down, the other guys were really locked in. I was really proud when Jamal got going in overtime. We wanted to keep the ball out of McRae’s hands for most of the game. He played 43 mins and that was a big part. Our post guys didn’t have that same amount of playing time as McRae had.”
Of Alex Caruso’s play, one reporter noted it had been up and down all season. Coach Kennedy said this was “probably Alex’s best game in SEC play. He made great decisions, made all the great plays, made all his free throws until the last big one, and I know he’s disappointed about that. Fabyon gave us a big lift as well.
Kennedy singled out Caruso, Roberson and Jordan Green: “they’re pretty resilient, they’ve stepped up and kept going. Our leadership and the character of our program has gotten better and that is why you win close games like this.”
That, and the Antwan Space factor gave the Texas Aggies their first back-to-back win in a long time and their second hard-fought victory over a very tough Tennessee team. Next game up is on Wed., Feb. 26, at LSU in Baton Rouge. The game begins at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on SEC TV.