From the time the members of Texas Aggie women’s basketball team were born, grown and introduced to their first competive sports experiences, chances are good, they’ve all heard this phrase, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” at least 1,000 times, from parents, coaches, teachers, and each other. On Sat., March 8, 2014, the No. 15 Aggie women brought this phrase to life, in showing their mentors, coaches, fellow team members and the Aggie fans just how much character they have, in the Aggies loss to the No. 6 University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers, 86-77 in the SEC tournament semifinal round.
Sportswriters can recite statistics, and photographs can preview the action; you can hear Mike Wright and Steve Miller on the Aggie Radio Network; even seeing the game on Fox Sports Network helps you review the action in the game, but that’s only half of the story. The Aggie women’s team faced the reality of SEC tournament play in the Arena at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Georgia, with just about 350 Aggie fans there to support, as the television cameras showed.
Imagine how it felt to each of them to be surrounded by 6,000 fans of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers women’s basketball team, cheering them on. It helped so much for the team to see their faithful Blair Buddies and the tremendous Hullabaloo Band, comprised of faithful students who gave up part of their spring break to represent their school, and for two dynamic Aggie yell leaders, Chris Powell and Patrick McGinty, who did the same thing. With fans holding up the corefoam heads of players and Coach Blair, “outnumbered” was the word of the day. When you don’t have a massive support base encouraging you that you can win, it forces you to search inside yourself.
The Tennessee fans have been gathering and driving to conference sites for years. They have signature fan outfits that some even design themselves. Women had orange vests signed by players for more than 10 years. Others had white blouses and long taffeta skirts in orange and white. They wore orange pom-pom antennas atop their heads; they carried pennants and waved flags for their team. They had “their songs” they sang along to as their band played, including “Rocky Top,” and “Tennessee Waltz.” And, mostly, the Tennessee fans cheered every play of the entire game in behalf of supporting their team. Men just mostly wore orange sweatshirts, but others wore white shirts and orange vests and sported orange and white sneakers.
Every uniform cover-up shirt on every player on all the teams in this tourney proudly proclaimed the SEC initiative “We back Pat,” with a focus on early onset Alzheimer’s disease, in tribute to a truly grand lady and brilliant women’s basketball coach, who led her university to national acclaim and legend because she knew how to motivate young women to go beyond their own expectations and reach for the stars—and play some serious basketball year after year.
The SEC video about the program ran many, many times in the Arena on Friday, and it showcased Tennessee to be sure, but that’s the SEC for you. When one person is “up,” we are all “up.” When one of “our own” goes down, every SEC player and coach finds the ways and means to show honor and respect for the opposing team. It’s a family spirit within the SEC that is as refreshing as it is new, for fans of Texas Aggie women’s basketball.
Current Tennessee head coach, Holly Warlick, is doing a tremendous job carving out her own identity as a leader, on her own, not being constrained to be just like Pat. Everyone has their own coaching style, and on that basis, young women sign on to commit four years of their lives to athletics, to academics, and to building character. They either believe in their prospective head coach or they find another school to whom to commit.
The Aggies beat Auburn and Tennessee defeated LSU on Friday to reach Saturday’s semifinals, and Tennessee’s only advantage was perhaps only four hours’ more rest than the Aggies. Tennessee is nationally ranked at No. 6 compared to the Aggies’ No. 15 and the Aggies had something to prove to themselves in playing Tennessee, having lost on their home court on Jan. 26, by the score of 76-55. And, as the reigning SEC champions from 2013, the Aggies were there to defend their title. Much was on the line in the contest for school pride.
And yet, despite all of this as entrée to the contest of the day, the Texas Aggies came ready to play and gained a deciding 10-point lead early in the play, which sent the giant orange crowd into a hush, comparatively, as balls just kept going through the net. Then the orange crush began, just as it had done the day before in orchestrating a come-from-behind victory over LSU.
You can view a statistic: Tennessee outrebounded the Aggies by 48-26 and call that Tennessee’s inside game. And yet, their high scores were Isabelle Harrison (20 points, 13 rebounds), Meighan Simmons (15 points) and Bashaara Graves (14) and ask, “what happened to the Aggies?” Statistics show the Ags were outrebounded and yet, where the Aggies led was foul calls.
Review at any other basketball game the Aggies had this season and see where the 2 CW’s combined for 48 of your 77 points, and 33% of the 3-point plays, 62% of the shots from two players is incredible. Jordan Jones played an exceptional game, garnering 12 points, 10 assists, 2 steals and 6 rebounds (leading her team), including four 3-point shots at the most critical times.
The post players Karla Gilbert and Rachel Mitchell had 4, and 3, rebounds, respectively, and combined for 10 points of the offense. It’s easy for coaches to state “we just didn’t get the rebounds, no inside game,” and yet, that would be both inequitable and not the whole story. Confident Karla Gilbert, emerging Rachel Mitchell, and assured Achire Ade combined for 12 personal fouls throughout the contest. You can’t say enough about Achire Ade, the often understated player who really understands the game from the inside out and contributes more to the team that statistics tend to show. There’s the old “hand crossing the plane” rule that the referees can call this year, personal space being “all that” and “protecting the other players,” ad infinitum, but get real.
Virtually every single time an Aggie post player went up for a rebound, it appeared to those watching, a personal foul was called on A&M. Ask yourself how the Texas Aggies can play ball all season long and achieve at No. 15 national ranking with these same players working their positions with all the other teams they’ve faced and suddenly, all three players seem to have a bad day at the office, abandoning all knowledge of how to play inside and how not to play inside.
That could be. Train goes off the tracks; it happens on “any given day.” Or maybe the prior Aggie loss to Tennessee danced like sugarplums in their heads for 60 minutes and they couldn’t shake the loop of failure in their heads and, oh wait, that’s not the Texas Aggies women’s basketball team. Not at all. These young women came prepared to play; they had plays drawn up for them and the lead changed 10 times and the score was tied 11 times. Aggies rose to the challenge and stayed close the entire game. Only near the very end of the game did Tennessee seem to rise up and push forward for the 9-point lead, which they had amassed with 17 seconds left in the second quarter.
School loyalty aside, a keen and professional knowledge of the game of basketball (or lack therof) aside, the Aggies had 21 personal fouls called and Tennessee had 11. Tennessee had 26 second chance points to Texas A&M’s 4 second chance points. Aggie coaches don’t blame officials, Aggie players don’t look for excuses, they just bring their very best to the game and hope that a crowd of people will be there to inspire their players to reach the top of their game.
You cannot ask for a better coaching staff at Texas A&M than the combo currently on deck. Aggies boast the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation in their solid sophomores who have achieved tremendous success all season long. But there is no question that with the presence of yelling, screaming, antenna-wearing, pom-pom waving, pennant flying, signed suede vest donning, and foot-stomping, rip-roaring Tennessee fans made the entire difference in yesterday’s semifinal contest.
A pleasant and affirming outcome of being in the outstanding SEC, which makes the Aggies being outscored far more palatable, was the tremendous reception, kindness, and courtesy which Tennessee fans showed Texas Aggie fans throughout the competition. A swell of strangers greeted those in maroon, “Good game,” “You played hard,” “Glad you were here,” and “You’re going to be the team to behold in the NCAA tourney,” on and on.
Also welcoming and warm were the Tennessee players, and their coach, Holly Warlick, who greeted their opponents and their fans with kindness, with smiles, and genuine camaraderie, playing in the spirit of the game, for the love of the game. It's really the way women's basketball should be played.
How distant and vague the “bad ol’ days” of playing in the Big 12 are behind the Aggies. It’s a true competition and spirit, minus the drama of playing 100-year old rivals that engender nothing but resentment and bad blood. Aggies are in the SEC now, and it’s a brand new day, and a good one at that.
When Texas A&M hosts the First and Second Round Games of the NCAA Tournament on March 23-25, if everyone in College Station and the surrounding driveable area who claims to bleed maroon will fill up Reed Arena, you will see what a difference a home crowd makes to these outstanding young ladies of Texas A&M women’s basketball team. It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game. They have every reason to hold their heads high when they return to class on campus.
Congratulate the Aggie women’s basketball team, players, staff and coaches, when you have the opportunity. They are winners, each and every one, with style, class and grace that just makes you proud to support your fightin’ Texas Aggie basketball team. Gig ‘em Aggies.