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Texas A&M men’s basketball grabs first SEC win over Arkansas, 69-53

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The Texas Aggie men’s basketball team, coming in 9-4, opened SEC play on Jan. 8, 2014 at Reed Arena hosting the Arkansas Razorbacks, entering with an 11-2 record, and every fan in Reed Arena was holding their collective breath to see which Aggie team would emerge from the dressing room. The crowd was large, with 5,102 attending to capture the bonus of Holiday Hoops pricing, although those in attendance were mostly season ticket holders. Would it be the team with great potential and a clean SEC slate, or would it be the team that still had not (to quote Fabyon Harris to KBTX interviewers from Tuesday) “put on their grown-up pants and come to play basketball” for real? The faithful who came left happy, as the Aggies beat the Razorbacks in their first SEC game of the season by the score of 69-53.

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Arkansas walked in the door with Bobby Portis, who’d already reached double figures in nine straight games, as well as having been named SEC freshman of the week twice already this season, in addition to his second double-double on Monday night vs. UTSA. Another statistic of interest is that Arkansas is the SEC’s top-scoring team. Two other players the Aggies expected to watch for were senior Mardracus Wade, a 6’2” guard noted for his ability to steal the ball as well as Rashad Madden, a 6’5” junior guard and strong shooter.

Prior to the game outgoing Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin was honored with a special presentation of a framed game jersey and a standing ovation from the crowd. Later on in the game Aggies Head Football Coach, Kevin Sumlin and 2013 Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel were spotted in the crowd. As the Aggies’ Reed Arena announcer, Chace Murphy, called the crowd’s attention to Manziel, who worked his way from one side of Reed Arena to the other, the football sensation received a standing ovation. Earlier in the day, Manziel announced his leaving A&M to enter the 2014 NFL draft.

The Aggies opened with a 5-0 run and managed to control the rebounds until Arkansas’ Madden hit a 3-pointer. Jamal Jones answered with 2 but then Arkansas answered with another 3 by Fred Gulley. Caruso went for a gentle layup and then Fabyon Harris got his first 3 of the night. Arkansas played aggressive defense and the fast pace they insisted on playing made Texas A&M have to step up their play. Antwan Space came in off the bench early and took the big-man place of Kourtney Roberson, who’d not been a factor in his early play.

Arkansa took the lead at 16-14, but a foul and a pair of Davonte Fitzgerald free throws tied the game back up with 11:24 left in the half. After Arkansas went ahead again 18-16, Roberson came back into the game with the hopes his power could make an impact. After two missed rebound attempts, Kourtney Roberson finally got his first bucket on a second rebound attempt and got fouled in the process but missed the gimme free throw, a sign of things to come for the rest of the night.

Fabyon Harris shot a 3-pointer to pull the Aggies back into the lead and then Shawn Smith grabbed a defensive rebound plus Rashad Madden was called for an intentional foul on Fabyon Harris, who scored on both free throws to give the Aggies a four-point lead.

At one point, the Aggies had an 8-point lead again, but Arkansas pulled back within 2. At this point, Portis, their super talented freshman had not been heard from and had remained scoreless, until Portis got a bucket and a free throw off a foul to make it 31-30 Arkansas. Davonte Fitzgerald then battled in for a 3-pointer, followed by Arkansas tying the game back up. Shawn Smith answered back for 2 more and yet another lead change. It was like watching a tennis match at times, up and down the court, fast paced.

Alex Caruso managed a great block on a 3-point attempt by Anthlon Bell and almost lost the ball. With 2 seconds left, Shawn Smith missed a 3-point attempt and the Aggies led by 2 at the half 35-33. In the first half the point leaders were Fabyon Harris with 10 points and Davonte Fitzgerald with 7 points and Alex Caruso, with only 2 points, had 5 defensive rebounds. Kourtney Roberson had 3 offensive rebounds and 2 total points, which must have had the coaches befuddled as to why he wasn’t on his best game.

In the second half, the Aggies came out of the locker room loaded for bear, or razorback. Alex Caruso hit a layup and Jamal Jones nailed a 3-pointer taking the lead to 7. Kourtney Roberson grabbed a defensive rebound and later, when everyone was fumbling around the Arkansas basket, Fabyon Harris captured a rebound. Davonte Fitzgerald missed a 3-point attempt and Arkansas answered back to pull within 3. Roberson missed his basket but fortunately benefited from a foul by Rashad and made 1 of 2 free throw attempts.

Caruso deftly fed Roberson a pass and he went up for his third basket of the night. Kennedy pulled Caruso and Roberson out and substituted a fresh Jordan Green and Antwan Space, who managed his 3rd foul right away. Jamal Jones came in for Davonte Fitzgerald as well. Kennedy wanted to see what this combination could do on the floor, plus Caruso needed the rest after playing so intensely and garnering 7 assists in addition to his 4 points. At this point, the score was 43-36, favor the Aggies. They had managed to keep Bobby Portis to 3 points thus far.

The score stayed frozen there until 14:12 left when Arkansas drove through for a layup, and then Antwan Space fouled Rashad Madden, who made one free throw. Arkansas had pulled back to within 4 with 13:00 left and everyone held their breath until Jamal Jones pulled another 3-pointer out of his arsenal. Caruso fought back and blocked Madden and gave the Aggies the ball back. Davonte Fitzgerald then helped himself to a 3-point bucket and Arkansas took a time out as the Aggies had a 10-point lead, 49-39.

An Arkansas turnover coming out of the time out gave the Aggies the ball back and Davonte another 3-point shot. Caruso managed to hold off until 11:13 to go before incurring his first personal foul. The Aggies had been up again by 10 until Rashad Madden had an uncontested 3, but Madden pulled a foul on Davonte Fitzgerald and he got one of his free throws to increase the Aggies’ lead back to 8.

Alex Caruso is leading the SEC in assists and had 9 in the game already with 7:49 to go. He finished with a career-high 11 on the night. The crowd went wild on a Kourtney Roberson dunk from a Caruso pass, and then Jordan Green grabbed the defensive rebound off a missed layup by Bobby Portis, and went coast to coast for the layup, which stretched the Aggie lead to 12 with 4:49 left in the game.

With 2:47 in the game and Fabyon Harris managed to get his 14th point as the Aggie lead stretched to 16, 66-50, and the Arkansas Razorbacks had been scoreless for almost 2 minutes while the Aggies had pulled in 6 points in that time. The Aggies were playing with renewed fire and this was indeed the game where they needed to pour it on.

On the night Arkansas’ offense had been contained. And the Aggies minimized turnovers and showed a solid level of improvement.

Final score was in favor of the Aggies, 69-53, and they played their hearts out for the home crowd and are to be commended for coming through substantial adversity to grab tonight’s win.

After the game, Aggie Asst. Coach Kyle Keller was volunteered to talk to Dave South and Al Pulliam for the postgame radio broadcast. It was quite surprising to hear Keller’s less-than-stellar comments made about a team that had just pulled off an entirely unexpected and practically miraculous win. Yes, we had 40.7% field goal shooting, but it was more than Arkansas had, plus we had twice the 3-point shooting as Arkansas did, at 41.2%, and we had 11 turnovers, 18 assists, and 7 blocks, again a better performance against a very quality, high-caliber Arkansas team, who came into Reed Arena with an 11-2 record.

Keller described the team’s play as “we’re not that good shooting.” Thanks for that update. Then when asked by Al Pulliam about the fabulous play of some of the Aggies, Keller drew a breath of enthusiasm for “How about that (Alex) Caruso?” but then when Pulliam complimented Fabyon Harris who had 15 points on the night and some dynamic plays, Keller responded was less than complimentary and noted that Harris played good tonight, “but sometimes you just want to wring his neck.” Uh, really, Coach Keller? Good to know. Harris is one of the four reasons the Aggies won tonight and that’s as much as you can come up with?

Postgame, Harris himself showed strength of team leadership (through some of the worst weeks and months in recent history) with more mature remarks:

Our practices lately have been very physical because we’re starting conference play. It’s grown man basketball. That’s how it’s going to be all throughout conference. Coach hasn’t been calling a lot of fouls in practice. He’s been letting us play because that’s what the refs are going to do.

Coach Kennedy had more inspirational things to say:

It’s great to get a good team win. We shared the ball and had 18 assists with Alex (Caruso) having 11. We made shots and played with great confidence. I’m proud of the fact that our guys bought in and knew when to slow down and run our offense most of the time. I thought the zone and change of defense gave us some good opportunities on the defensive end.

And no, the team’s play wasn’t perfect, but it was remarkable, particularly given their last few home games where potential and opportunity met, but without satisfactory results. Said Kennedy postgame:

We’re young. We’ve got a young group with a lot of new guys. I’m not surprised, but I expect more out of our older guys. We haven’t gotten that consistently. We had a good team performance. Fabyon (Harris) was really good. Kourtney (Roberson) did some good things. I thought Alex (Caruso) and Jordan (Green) provided good leadership out there for us.

The Aggies were fired up and compensated for the loss of who they thought was going to be their season starting point guard. This team has struggled and sustained some really bad losses based on collectively poor play enhanced by very low morale among the players who had the unexpected loss of their teammate, for reasons not to be questioned. One wonders if the players are lacking consistent solidarity in coaches who believe in their innate skills and talents. Maybe so. Suffice it to say that Dave South and Al Pulliam were inspirational and generous in their commentary and are two of the reasons people give a flying fig about Aggie men’s basketball right now.

Aggie Coach John Reece was missing from the sidelines for the game. At the press conference following the game, Coach Kennedy said simply that Reece’s absence was due to personal reasons.

The Razorbacks had top performers Rashad Madden with 12 points, 2 assists, 1 block, 2 steals, and 3 turnovers. Coty Clarke was next with 9 points and led the team with 10 total rebounds and 4 assists; 3 of his turnovers were due to Aggies playing truly aggressive takeaway ball. Freshman sensation came on strong in the second half, with 7 points and 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and 1 turnover.

Arkansas coach Mike Anderson was certainly the class act you’d expect, saying of his team:

They know they missed an opportunity. I told them ‘let me take the blame for that.’ Teams are pretty good in our league. Our hats off to Billy Kennedy and his team; they play with a lot of energy. They scored some buckets early on which I thought gave them some momentum in the second half. They did a good job executing.

Overall, there’s every reason to be encouraged by the play of Texas A&M on Wednesday. They’ve been able to work against all odds and find themselves, sticking together, particularly with leadership of Jordan Green and the effusiveness of Alex Caruso, the determination of Fabyon Harris, some sharp shooting of Jamal Jones and Davonte Fitzgerald, and good minutes off the bench from Antwan Space and Shawn Smith. Kourtney Roberson still represents the chance to be the best player on this team, but he’s just not there yet. No doubt he will be stronger playing in upcoming games; when he’s 100% on contributing his mental game and using his height and strength to get into the basket, instead of worrying about fouls, the Aggies will have that last piece of the puzzle on how to put together mulitple wins.

The Aggies travel to Knoxville, Tennessee to play the University of Tennessee on Saturday, Jan. 11 at 5 pm. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports Network. Next home game is Wed., Jan. 15, at 7:00 p.m. vs. South Carolina.

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