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Texas Aggie men’s basketball engineers comeback to beat Tennessee, 57-56

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In one of the most dynamic, exciting Aggie men’s basketball games in years, on Jan. 11, 2014, Texas A&M won their first SEC road game against the University of Tennessee, and snapped the Volunteers’ four-game win streak. The Aggies claimed their second consecutive SEC victory by the score of 57-56. The winning score was an Antwan Space 3-point shot, which represented 50% of the points he made tonight. But the mood was "team, team and more team" the entire second half. The Aggies refused to give up, even after going into the locker room down by 14 points at the half, 32-18, at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville with an attendance of 18,079.

The game broke down to a shocking first half, in terms of shooting, with the Aggies managing only 18 points. The Aggies were 6 of 24 (25%) of their field goal attempts and they had two 3-point shots out of 5 tries; they made 4 of 8 free throws. The Aggies did, however, manage to keep Tennessee from their usual offensive shooting fest, holding them to 40% shooting, 10-24 field goals and they had 4 of 10 3-point tries and 8 of 9 free throws. From 9:34 to go in the first half until the halftime buzzer sounded, Texas A&M had scored absolutely no points. Not one. It was time for the Aggies to dig deep and determine what they were really made of.

In the second half, the matchup became a more defensive contest with the Aggies doing an excellent job of guarding the Volunteers. Jamal Jones found his groove with 5 of his 10 three-pointe attempts going in. Jones was the leading scorer for the Aggies, with 23 points and 5 rebounds. Alex Caruso was again all over the court, managing 12 points and 4 free throws in addition to 2 rebounds and 8 assists.

The Aggies had managed to have contributions from all the players. Before it came down to the final wire, Antwan Space had one 3-pointer to his name; Davonte Fitzgerald had 2 points, Kourtney Roberson had 6 points and 6 important rebounds, Jamal Jones also had 5 important rebounds, and Jordan Green had 5 points and drove Tennessee crazy, not letting them get their floor position they were hoping for. The Aggies managed 20 points off Tennessee’s turnovers, compared to Tennessee only had 9 points from Aggie turnovers.

So, the entire game really came down to the final few minutes of the game. Tennessee was ahead 56-54. The Aggies had fought hard, clawed and scraped every bucket they could find to be within 2 points. Time on the clock was 00:17. If you just look at the stats, you might see “Caruso missed two free throws.” You’d shake your head and wonder why, since Caruso is usually a free throw-making machine. But what happened before those free throws was Caruso going full speed down the court, going for 2 points, but you would have made a face when you saw him, not only go down on the court, but the back of his head hit the floor—hard.

You know that overused phrase, “leave it all on the court”? Yes, well, Alex did. He went crashing to the floor, but this time, the floor hit back. Caruso, ever the team player, just reached back and rubbed his head and went back in. He paused a minute before allowing his teammates to help him up. He went over to the sidelines to assure everyone he was fine and he could play.

On the next play Caruso was fouled by Tennessee’s Antonio Barton, which gave the Aggies a chance to tie the game. And that’s when Alex missed the first free throw, after he’d just gotten up from his head hitting the court on the preceding play. Anyone else would have hit the bench, applied the ice packs and looked for someone else to go in, but not Caruso.

When the second free throw didn’t go in, Jeronne Maymon grabbed the rebound for Tennessee. Kourtney Roberson immediately fouled him and fortunately for the Aggies, Maymon missed both his free throws. In the final seconds, the Aggies got Antwan Space the ball and, having contributed only one 3-pointer in the game up to that point, the clutch shot was Space’s to take.

Statistics were not Antwan Space’s friend. All season long Antwan struggled with the three-pointers, having only made 2 of 16 attempts before tonight. It’s a good thing Antwan ignored statistics, because he planted his feet, took a perfect shot, and the ball flew through the net “like buttah,” and Space had his second score of the night, the go-ahead 3 that gave the Aggies the lead with 4 seconds left. Tennessee’s Jordan McRae raced down the court and missed his three-point attempt and the night belonged to the Aggies, their first SEC road win, and their second SEC victory. It was an unforgettable game turnaround that will be cherished as one of the best games in Aggie men’s basketball history in the past seven years.

If you could only pick one thing, the most important variable in this win has to be Coach Billy Kennedy’s being in sync with his players, understanding their psyches, their motivation to bond, to work hard and to win for Texas A&M. That made the difference between the Aggies failing under pressure and their determination to bounce back and win.

Tonight’s postgame interview on the Aggie Radio Network conference was both revealing and rewarding to hear. As special assistant Mitch Cole shared, when talking with radio announcers Dave South and Mike Caruso (also known as Alex’s dad, or TAMU Associate Athletic Director for Events and Game Operations), it was all about team in that locker room at the half.

Cole said, “at the half a couple of guys were hanging their heads, disappointed with being behind (32-18) after a tough first half. But a couple of guys stood up and spoke up. Alex Caruso was one of them. He said, “we’ve held them and we’ve shown we can guard them. Our shots will start falling. We just need to keep shooting, and hang in there.” With that kind of leadership, and likely an echo from another team leader, Jordan Green, this is exactly the inspiration the talented young men needed to hear, to buck up and get back out there and leave it all on the court in Knoxville.

Continuing, Cole noted, “the guys were really flowing on their own, without us calling a bunch of plays. Coach Kennedy decided at the end of the game, to let the guys continue with their flow. He’d worked them hard on just that kind of end-of-game play, and they came through.”

In the official media postgame interview Coach Billy Kennedy said, “I’m really proud of our guys for hanging in there and believing in each other. I think we did a tremendous job of guarding defensively. We were blessed. Antwan made a big shot. They missed some free throws, we missed some free throws. But our guys stuck together, kept believing and didn’t quit.”

Kennedy said, “We got Jamal going, and we took good shots. I thought our shot selection was much better the second half. We were able to run offense. Tavario Miller came in and gave us some good minutes, and Antwan came in the second half and did some good things. We did a good job controlling the tempo. Our coaches did a great job preparing us for this game.”

When Antwan Space was asked about his game-winning shot, he said, “Honestly, it looked like AC (Caruso) came off a screen from Kourtney, so I just guessed that we were running a play that Coach K had designed so I just found an open spot on the floor. (It was) a blessing.”

Kennedy said, “Our message was to just stick together. I thought the character of our team showed, we grew up a lot in this particular game. We stayed in the game, which was key. After the first half, we established some poise, and some tempo and stopped taking quick shots.”

The players’ postgame comments on Twitter were shared by Texas A&M Athletics; the insight into their emotions and passion with which they play is clear:

Alex Caruso (@ACFresh21):
Love my team

Fabyon Harris (@Fab_Blessed078)
Good team win I love this team #SQUAD @Texasa&m

Antwan Space (@AntwanSpace_IDK)
God is good

Jordan Green V (@JdotGreenX116)
On to the next one

The Texas A&M men’s basketball program has been through some substantial challenges in the beginning of their season. These are young kids whose emotions run high and feelings run deep, but they have forged strong friendships and bonds, based on group dynamics, team bonding, and good coaching by Kennedy & company that has allowed them to build their team with a true 12th Man spirit of all-for-one-and-one-for-all that will see them through the rest of their second year in the SEC.

The excitement and dynamics of the game on television was spectacular. The only thing better is to see the Aggie men play at home in Reed Arena. Attendance “does” matter to the Aggies. The photo in this story from Andrew Bruckse/Tennessee Athletics is so very telling. Tennessee has a history of SEC support and when over 16,000 pile into their Thompson-Boling Arena for their first SEC game of the season, imagine that so far this year, the Aggie men’s team has been averaging attendance of 5,000 people. Now imagine what it would do to boost team morale to see 10,000 or more people crammed into Reed Arena. You can make that happen.

If you’ve been undecided about whether or not you want to follow the men’s team this year, wait no more. Get out to Reed Arena on Wed., Jan. 15, as the Aggies will host South Carolina for their next SEC matchup. It’s time to fill up Reed Arena for Aggie basketball. It’s time for Texas A&M men’s team to know they have 12th Man support. Tipoff on Wednesday night is 7:00 p.m. See you there. #RockReedArena

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