In a surreal case of real life mirroring fiction in parallel universes, on Sunday, Mar. 10, the SEC championship final matchup can be described as a script right out of NCIS, the tale of a brilliant, courageous team, sent to do battle, led by a gruff but all-knowing U.S. Marine, saying “Gear up!” Together with some senior team members, more than a few probies, and one forensic genius, whose pigtails and mystique belie her ability to pick apart defenses, one by one, until a solution is revealed, today’s game/mystery was played out to a ‘t’, and well played at that. Except—instead of team leader Leroy Jethro Gibbs, it’s Gary Blair (a real Marine), and rather than Abby Sciuto, it’s Kelsey Bone (in full power pigtails), and the team isn’t NCIS—it’s the Texas A&M women’s basketball team, today named the SEC Champions.
The story of Texas A&M’s victory capturing the Southeastern Conference championship in Sunday’s finals began with a battle against a top defensive power in South Carolina, then a surprising (to some) victory over No. 1 seed Tennessee, which culminated in Sunday’s dynamic matchup between No. 2 seed University of Kentucky (27-5) and No. 4 seed Texas A&M (24-9).
When the SEC tournament began, the Texas Aggies were not among those considered favored to win, not by a long shot. Many (not all) of the media marvels had muttered their naysayings, reminding the listeners on TV, radio and blah-blah-blah in print just how poorly the Aggie women had played their final four games of their regular season, the first season in the SEC. Three times, over this weekend’s championship play, the collective intelligencia of seasoned sports writers and reporters were quick to bring up the Aggies losses in the not-too-distant past, along with misspent mutterings and musings of the promise once held for Texas A&M. It was a post-mortem without the dead body that most media were promising the Aggie women’s basketball team.
Fortunately Gibbs, err Gary (Blair), didn’t allow his team to pay attention to the media. They just studied the plays, the scouting, and listend to Coach Blair, Coach Bob Starkey, Coach Kelly Bond, and Coach Amy Wright, and are en route home with some souvenirs of cutting down nets from the hoops in today’s championship game.
Constant reminders of how great the Aggie football team was in its debut SEC season abounded all weekend long, and the week preceding the championship. The airwaves were fraught with the obligatory caution of “how the Aggie women might just be having a tougher time of things”, facing opponents from “true basketball schools,” complete with arenas packed to the gills with large, faithful audiences. “Maybe next year,” they said, over and over, about the Aggie women’s basketball team.
For every time the tongue-waggers clucked and tsk’ed their admonitions of the Aggies having bitten off more than they could chew, Coach Gary Blair kept smiling, kept handing out candy to early arrivals at Reed Arena and to a person, and made sure his team never failed to thank the audience for coming.
Funny thing was, all season long, even two years past a national championship, the stands at Reed Arena were not packed with Aggie students. Nine times out of 10, the Aggie women’s constituency has been comprised of “blue hairs, grey hairs, and no hairs,” as Blair calls them—warmly— for their faithful attendance and support, across the country and around the world. Wherever the Aggie women played the game, they could count on a solid backing from faithful fans. In his inaugural year as Texas Aggie Athletic Director Eric Hyman made substantial efforts to pack Reed Arena with students, but it was slow going.
For every Monday night weekly radio show broadcast from College Station’s “Wings N’ More” restaurant, host Mike Wright asked, and Coach Blair answered, time and again reminding the crowd that there was nothing “broken,” and nothing “needed fixin’,” that it was just a matter of time, keep on playing the game plan and keep on shooting to win. Pretty much, that’s what the Aggies did today, except they did it against all odds, given Kentucky having cleaned the Aggies’ clocks in the first two meetings of the regular season.
The numbers and statistics tell the full story. The reality was that Kelsey Bone had 18 points and 15 rebounds; Kristi Bellock had 15 points, Courtney Walker had 14 points and the Aggies had, at one point, a 15-point lead over Kentucky. “We stayed together, we stayed positive,” said the tournament MVP Kelsey Bone. When the awards were announced, Bone, in her usual fashion could not stop talking—about the exemplary play of junior center Karla Gilbert. “I want everyone to know that Karla Gilbert is the unsung hero of this game,” said Bone. “There would be no way we could have won this without her, without every play she made.”
Of the accolades and team “hardware” bestowed upon Bone, like all of Gary Blair’s faithful, the “team” effort came shining through. Kelsey said, “whatever honors I’ve been given here, there are no honors or awards that anyone wins alone. I don’t get these awards without this team.” And, to a person, that is the way every Aggie player feels, truly, about the other.
The first half of play was tight, with the Aggies trailing by 2 points at halftime, but in the midway point in the action, Blair gave his instructions to his team and they came out and executed it perfectly. Kentucky standout player A’dia Mathies was named SEC co-player of the year on the SEC championship team. Aggie senior Kristi Bellock and Aggie freshman Courtney Walker were also named. Aggie freshman Courtney Williams made some truly amazing points and played brilliant defense. Karla Gilbert had her best games of the year when her team needed her most, and she came through with grace, finesse, and a smile. And Aggie point guard Adrienne Pratcher led her team the entire way, with as many standout, stunning defensive moves as wise offensive ones. Jordan Jones, Peyton Little, and Rachel Mitchell saw playing time and made invaluable moments happen.
“We told our players that ‘rebounds mean rings’,” said Coach Bob Starkey, when Mike Wright asked him what the coaches had told their teams at halftime. The second half of play found Kentucky shotless, pointless, and shut out for minutes at a time. The Cats made only 4 of its first 23 shots in the second half. Anyone who might have had a question mark in their minds as to just exactly what it was that Coach Bob Starkey means to the Aggie defense got their answer today. The offense came forth with “an 11-0 run at the early stretch of the second half,” managed “an 11-point lead and then reloaded with another 8-0 run midway through the second half,” noted Matt Callaway, Aggie Asst. Media Relations Director.
Truly, the Wildcats did not know what hit them. And it was all part of a plan, a grand master plan, to bring the SEC championship home to Aggieland, as devised, strategized, and energized by none other than Aggies Head Coach Gary Blair. And there's no more fitting soundtrack for the weekend that Dan Fogelberg's "Part of the Plan," as heard in the video (see bottom of story).
The Aggies are expected to arrive home to a large crowd planning to greet them on campus, outside the Cox-McFerrin center of Reed Arena at 12:15 am, Monday, Mar. 11th. Congratulations to every member of the Texas A&M women’s basketball team, the coaches, staff, and support team for a superlative victory in bringing home the SEC championship to Texas A&M. Semper Fi, Coach Blair, Semper Fi.