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In support of the NCAA Elite Eight players on Texas A&M women’s basketball team

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On March 29, 2014, the Texas A&M women’s basketball program achieved something very special by beating a solid DePaul team by a score of 84-65. They played, on ESPN, in the Sweet 16, of the 2014 NCAA National Championship tournament, in front of a tremendous crowd of 9,585 in Lincoln, Nebraska, the highest crowd so far this year for any NCAA Tournament session.

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A crowd of marvelous Aggie fans made the journey in person, enhanced in number by more basketball-loving fans from Nebraska who stayed to watch. Add in the tremendous number who watched “your fighting Texas Aggies” play by television across the country, yelling and jumping for joy with each bucket scored. Aggies around the world, thanks to ESPN, could share and take part in the path forward from Sweet Sixteen to Elite Eight.

The Aggies not only earned that right, to go forward and play UConn on Monday night, but they also earned the respect of Aggie fans around the country, some of whom might have forgotten that this team has been here all season long, playing at Reed Arena, just a five-minute drive away at resoundingly affordable ticket prices.

Most importantly, what the Aggie women achieved was summarized by point guard Jordan Jones in a postgame interview. She essentially said, “Our team was able to show why we belonged here. Many people gave up on us earlier in the season, and we’re so glad that people had a chance to see our team play tonight.”

It wasn’t a defensive statement at all. It was an outpouring of heartfelt appreciation for all of the faithful Aggie fans who have shown, all season long, that they believed in this young team. The primary playmakers, all season long, have been a tremendous group of sophomores, anchored by exemplary play from seniors and transfer students who give their all. And, each one of these young ladies wears their hearts on their sleeves during the season. They are your players and when you show them your love, your support, your attendance and your respect, they know it, they feel it and they appreciate it.

It’s easy to watch a game on ESPN, have a pizza, and spend two hours cheering our Aggies onto victory. You have former students standing and clapping, whooping and fist pumping, which is just the Aggie way. But you also have people around the country saying, “well they got lucky,” or “the Aggies looked good, but their game plays right into UConn’s hands.” The bottom line is that those who doubt, and have doubted, this team all season long have not had the privilege of knowing the character, drive, tenacity, resilience, spirit, love and honor with which the young student-athletes have so very much earned the right to be in the, now, Elite Eight, with all eyes on the Final Four.

The Aggie women don’t have to have throngs of people backslapping their victories and making excuses for the losses. They do, but it’s not what drives them exclusively. They have each other, and they have a coaching staff that is surely unparalleled across the country, save for other schools also in these rounds of the NCAA postseason play.

First and foremost, these young ladies are student-athletes. Unless you have an inside perch atop from which to view, you miss the subtle nuance of that term. These young women are serious about classes, and graduation. You could hide the championship banners and cover up the few graphics that adorn Reed Arena (right now) showing that Texas A&M is indeed a “basketball school.” It’s long overdue to show just how much Texas A&M is a real basketball school. We know it, but we have a long way to go to show it. That’s for the administrative honchos to get it in gear and jump on board the Aggie Women’s Basketball Express—hopefully they will and make short work of it.

Head Coach Gary Blair would just as soon have you know that the Aggies are a university, first, where basketball is played, where basketball is valued, and where basketball is respected. It’s team play, team sports and team distinctions that they share. But at the end of the four-year journey, it’s a diploma in his players’ hands that counts. He takes his players to career fairs, he sets up interviews for students to talk with professionals in their fields about plans, after graduation, and if they want to go into coaching, he’s there to lend his support while they’re in school. But that’s not all.

He welcomes them back to campus during their breaks from playing pro ball; just ask Danielle Adams. He welcomes them back to campus when he brings the former students and former pro players back as graduate assistants and says to anyone within hearing distance that they belong on ESPN. Just ask Sydney Colson. He is proud of his students who transfer here and red shirt the first year, then work hard to play and graduate, then go pro. Just ask Kelsey Bone.

Currently, Taylor Cooper is a red shirt who is sitting out this year and Rachel Mitchell red shirted her first year. That’s a special level of commitment, too, to show patience that you’ll get your turn. Jordan Jones had to wait to play behind Adrienne Pratcher; Kristi Bellock had to wait her turn to play. That’s what being on a team is all about. It’s not the individual spotlight; it is “this team, our team, my team” that resounds through every single press conference these young women give. It’s a family.

You can say that about so many other exemplary teams around the country but, of course, the Aggies so firmly believe that school spirit is different, more precious, here than anywhere else. It’s been “us against the world of unbelievers” for so many years that it only makes sense if you’re an Aggie. You just have to “be here” to understand how special this is. It’s a team that goes forward together, in sports and in the classroom. It’s playing at Reed Arena for an NCAA tourney as one goal, but it’s also a goal that they’ll put down “the other floor” to walk the stage at Reed for commencement ceremony that is just as important to our team.

Graduation and launching into a better life ahead means more to Blair than the 2011 championship ring he wears on the hand where he points at referees and shows them the error of their ways, where he calls plays (somewhat animatedly sometimes), and where he shakes the hands of the people who come up to him, looking to his leadership role to congratulate “the team” on their accomplishments.

The Aggie women have players who graduated from college and stay around to play for their team. Kristen Grant is in graduate school right now. Christina Sanchez-Quintanar is a three-sport letterman for A&M with academic distinctions as well. Blair’s players either leave with a diploma or they come back to campus when they’re not playing pro ball, to finish up their degrees. That’s as important to him, and to Aggie player parents, as anything else they do on the court. That is, after all, why they’re here.

It’s not just Blair in those locker rooms, practice gyms, and arenas. It’s Associate Head Coach Kelly Bond-White, Asst. Coach Bob Starkey, Asst. Coach Amy Wright, and Graduate Assistant Sydney Colson who log more hours making sure these young people understand how they can best shape their potential into reality on the court.

Then there are the unsung heroes behind the scenes, Erich Birch, the Director of Operations, who makes sure the team moves en masse on the road, wherever they are bound (think General MacArthur with a clipboard and a smile, moving troops). There’s Athletic Trainer Mike “Radar” Ricke, who overides players who say “they’re just fine” when they get slammed onto the court, because they want to get back out there and play. Radar knows best.

There’s Nick Grant, Video Coordinator, the King of Film. The Aggies watch more film than Sony/Columbia Pictures ever thought about, because that’s how they learn what they did right, wrong, and in between. David Waxman, Asst. Media Relations Director, could sub in for any working Air Traffic Controller in the tower because he keeps statistics in his head in case Coach Blair has a question during the game, and he keeps the media informed at all times. Unseen, behind the scenes, it’s taking all of these people to make “this” happen.

A special part and heart of the team is Jen Jones, Director of Player Development, who makes sure those weight rooms are used for tremendous conditioning of the body. She’s also the same person who will tape spiritual quotes onto the lockers of the players as inspiration, because that’s as important to Coach Blair and his staff. One night during a men’s game a few years ago, Blair was given the microphone and he announced that he had tickets to the Aggie women’s game for a Sunday afternoon and he’d give them to students who would come to the game “after they’d gone to church that morning.” Subtle, sort of, but vintage Blair.

In fact, Blair has been on a crusade for the past 11 seasons at Texas A&M. He lives and breathes Aggie basketball, and he will talk to a tree stump if he thinks it will bring its family to an Aggie women’s basketball game. He has his very own table (complete with Aggie women’s basketball graphics) at a local restaurant. He goes there after church on Sundays and hands out tickets to the game. His pitch? “I’ll give you the first pair of tickets free and you’ll buy your own second pair.”

That’s all it takes, one game, to win over any undecided Aggie fan. It’s not enough just to coach well; you have to sell basketball in this town, and Blair is just as vocally strong a supporter of the Aggie men’s team as well as his women’s team.

Texas A&M has a long, long way to go in creating an atmosphere at Reed Arena that is commensurate with the “look” of being the 2011 National Champions, with countless trips now to the First Round, Second Round, Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight of NCAA Division I play. The Aggies are, in fact, a school very, very far behind in “looking” like a basketball school.

In SEC play, amazingly, A&M is close to last in perception. Take a walk around Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Georgia to see the difference. A life-size photo of Head Coach Andy Landers, and of Georgia men’s and women’s basketball (and their gymnastics and volleyball) athletes who are now pro players are all prominently (and most affordably interchangeable) displayed as you walk around the concourse. Every year you have new stars, and every year they are featured in life-size display photos at Stegeman. The Aggie player corefoam heads popping up in the stands are a nice touch, but have you seen what real basketball schools look like?

Walk into the Comcast Center in College Park, Maryland, and see the 2006 NCAA Championship floor that Head Coach Brenda Frese’s University of Maryland team sees. Check out Gampel Pavilion where UConn plays; see the difference. The University of Tennessee offers Sunday afternoon family four-pak prices of $20, so a family of four can see women’s basketball, have four hot dogs and four soft drinks. They have $2 Tuesdays there and they offer flex ticket pricing for upper decks.

The Aggies have plenty of available room in the upper deck. During the latter part of the season, they finally admitted students with an all-sports pass free, then later all students, with or without all-sports pass could come free. Two steps forward and one step back, though. Texas A&M charged $5.00 to park at Reed Arena during the First and Second Rounds of NCAA tournament play.

Not everyone is going in the right direction to support women’s basketball at Texas A&M. Now is the time for Texas A&M to become “a basketball school.” The Aggies are in the Elite Eight for the third time now; there’s no better time than today. Visits to other SEC arenas will prove that in five seconds. “Graphics are coming” to Reed Arena, we are told. And Athletic Director Eric Hyman, and Chief of Staff Marcy Girton are aware of that need, as they attend every home game, SEC tournament game and beyond.

The old excuse that “well, this is Texas and football is king” is no longer applicable. “That dog won’t hunt” any more, as the saying goes, but all Aggie fans have been reassured that “help is on the way.” Those fans will indeed be watching for that in coming months, especially given that Texas A&M has already made it to the Elite Eight for the third time now, going for the Final Four tomorrow night, and they are the 2011 National Champions. School spirit is important, but more importantly, the Texas A&M women’s basketball team deserves as much. They’re doing their part, and more.

Come Monday night, in front of a national television viewing audience, the fighting Texas A&M women’s basketball team will be playing their hearts out on the court in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the right to go to the Final Four. Here’s what they did last night as the reasons they truly belong there, the notes compiled by Texas A&M Athletics:

  • “The Aggies are making their third trip to the Elite Eight, all since 2008 (2008, 2011, 2014), and looking for their second trip to the Women’s Final Four.
  • Texas A&M’s senior class is 12-2 in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Texas A&M is 21-9 all-time in 11 NCAA Tournament Appearances, including the 2011 National Championship
  • Texas A&M is 20-4 since Dec. 28 and has won 10 of its last 12 games.
  • The Aggies shot 60 percent from the field in the game, a school NCAA Tournament record.
  • DePaul was held to a season-low 65 points and season-low 24 first-half points.
  • Texas A&M held a 22-17 lead at the 7:00 mark of the first half … the Aggies shot 88 percent the rest of the way (7-of-8) while holding DePaul to just 17 percent (2-of-12) in extending the lead to 14 heading into the locker room.
  • Attendance for Saturday was 9,585 at Pinnacle Bank Arena, the largest crowd so far this year for any NCAA Tournament session.
  • With the victory, A&M advanced to its third Elite Eight in school history (2008, 2011, 2014).
  • The Aggies improved to 22-9 in NCAA Tournament play … A&M is 20-7 in NCAA action under Gary Blair.
  • Texas A&M has outscored opponents in this year’s tournament by an average of 16.7 points.”

For individual play in last night's Sweet 16 contest vs. DePaul, Courtney Walker had 25 points, the “third-highest scoring output by an Aggie in NCAA play” (Danielle Adams holds the other two records, with 30 against Notre Dame and 28 against Rutgers). Walker also became “the ninth player in school history to score 20 points in an NCAA game.” This was also Courtney’s 10th game of the season where the computer engineering major scored over 20 points in a game. She also had 3 defensive rebounds and 2 assists, playing 35 minutes.

Courtney Williams played with determination and strength, coming up with 15 tremendous points, plus 7 rebounds, 4 of those defensive, and 1 assist, playing 28 minutes. Shooting strength Tori Scott had 10 points and 3 rebounds, a great on-court presence for 30 minutes.

Curtyce Knox was exceptional in her 12 minutes of play; don’t let the 4 points and 1 rebound fool you; those buckets came at key moments when the Aggies needed them. Knox plays such great defense that those “numbers” can’t be explained. She can demoralize the opponent simply by her “I’m going stay with you and you are not going to score on me” attitude. Chelsea Jennings had 6 exemplary points and 1 rebound during her 14 minutes of play. Jennings has really come on strong the second half of the season; it’s a pleasure to watch her realize her full potential.

Senior strength Karla Gilbert was 3-3 on her field goals, and 5 of 6 on her free throws, for 11 total points and 5 rebounds and 1 steal in 18 minutes of play. Achire Ade continues to be one of the most tremendous competitors on this team. She played for 21 minutes and had 7 rebounds and 1 assist; it’s not that she fouled out that’s relevant. It’s that she made the words true from the Aggie t-shirt, “I gave everything I had and left it on the court.” That’s how you get a 27-8 season record.

Not to be missed, coming off of the bench to contribute to the team is what the Aggies are well prepared to do. Tavarsha Scott-Williams was tremendous; in 7 minutes of play she had 6, count them, 6 rebounds, 2 offensive and 4 defensive. You don’t get your name said over the PA system for rebounds, but your team can’t win without them. Same with Rachel Mitchell, who played for exactly 4 minutes and had 2 amazing blocks. Her countenance was so special: “Hello, my name is Rachel, and I’ll be blocking your shot today!”

Jordan Jones had six assists last night, which brings her season total to 259; so far, that’s the fifth all-time high in SEC history. But Jordan also had 5 steals and 4 rebounds—her leadership of her team is so important. Jones’ heart and soul is committed to success. She believes in her team, she leads her team and she loves her team. You don’t see in a stat sheet the “down-the-court” amazing pass Jones made to Tori Scott, who was then able to make a basket without a single defender anywhere near her. Jones’ leadership cannot be emphasized enough. Kudos to Amy Wright and Sydney Colson for sharing their experiences as “Blair point guards” with Jones and Knox.

Asst. Coach Bob Starkey especually commended Curtyce Knox and Chelsea Jennings, on the postgame radio broadcast, for their defensive play, so critical to this victory. Jada Terry and Kristen Grant were in the game for 1 minute, but it’s not about the minutes you play that matter—it’s about “you are there for your team,” ever the 12th Man, ever the Aggie.

To have your team shooting 60% of your field goals in each half of the game is tremendous. But to hold DePaul, a team who came in so highly touted for their 3-point play, to 20% of their 3-point attempts, is phenomenal. The Aggies did something no other team could do to DePaul.

On Monday, March 31, at 8:30 p.m., on ESPN, inside the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska, your fighting Texas Aggie women’s basketball team will take on UConn for the right to go to the Women’s Final Four in Nashville, Tennessee. In 2011, Texas A&M won its last three NCAA Tournament games when they’ve played against No. 1 seeds, and they won three in a row in 2011. That team, of which Karla Gilbert was a freshman, carries the mantle of that record forward, and this team into tomorrow night’s game. There’s the fact that Texas A&M has not defeated a team ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll, and that’s the reality check. Show your faith in this team and call Aggie Athletics to get on the list for 2014-2015 season tickets. Get on next year’s bandwagon now; it’s never too early.

Join in person these special young women, who believe in themselves, in each other and in the spirit of everyone who has a maroon t-shirt, jacket, cap, or ring. Whether you have generations of Aggies in your family, or your child is the first in your family to go to college, your support is key, right now.

This year’s Texas Aggie women’s basketball team should know that “their” Aggie family is with them in support of this team, whether in Lincoln, Nebraska or in front of a television somewhere in the United States. Then there’s support of online listeners, those who hear Mike Wright and Steve Miller on the Aggie Radio Network, each one with pride in this young team.

Aggies everywhere can have love in their hearts for the hearts these players show on the court—every day of practice, every night of play. Show your respect for who this team is as our individual student-athletes. Reach out to them by e-mail, Twitter, text message, Facebook page likes, or whatever you can do to share your love with this team before tomorrow night’s game. Become part of this great family of Aggies who love Texas A&M women’s basketball—now! You’re as welcome today as you are all season long. They need you and they deserve your support. Gig ‘em Aggies and BTHO UConn!

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