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Not Done Yet

Led by an ultra-talented senior class, the Aggies aim to avenge last season’s early NCAA exit.

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Though painful, Texas A&M women's basketball coach Gary Blair and his players were reminded last March how far the program has come in a 69-60 loss to Arkansas-Little Rock in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Afterward, the Trojans rushed the court at Arizona State's Wells Fargo Arena as if they'd won the national championship. It was only UALR's second victory in the NCAA Tournament, but this one was extra special because it came against a program that just four years ago won a national title.

It was somewhat remarkable that A&M in less than a decade went from being the Big 12's worst program to one used as a measuring stick for success. That's why the UALR players cried, hugged, whooped and hollered afterward. They beat one of the game's top programs, which one year prior had put an Elite Eight scare in eventual national champ Connecticut.

Blair was even happy for UALR head coach Joe Foley, a good friend, who also happened to win his 700th game. Blair and his players gave Foley and the Trojans credit in the postgame press conference, but Blair's long face and junior guard Courtney Walker's inability to hold back tears showed how much it hurt to lose.

Texas A&M had not lost in the first round since starting a decade-long run of 10 straight NCAA appearances with a 69-65 loss to TCU in 2006. Back then, the Aggies were just glad to be in the tourney after only two appearances in the previous 24 years. Now, anything less than a Sweet 16 appearance isn't good enough.

"Oh, it sticks with you. My golf handicap went from a 9 to a 12," quipped Blair. "But at the same time, it's a little bit like Mark Twain said, 'The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.' People around this town are taking us for granted, and I do not like that. We had a good season."

The 2015-16 Aggies are talented enough to fill the bandwagon back up and put the UALR loss behind in a big way. It's certainly one of Blair's most experienced teams. Wing Courtney Williams, point guard Jordan Jones and Walker are all seniors who have combined for 301 career starts. Jones and Walker earned All-America honorable mention honors the last two seasons, and the 6-foot-1 Williams might be the most talented. A former high school McDonald's All-American, Williams played for the United States this summer in the 2015 Pan American Games.

There are plenty of strong players around them, but those three will determine how far the Aggies go in the NCAA Tournament.

"We have a free-flowing offense and with the game on the line, we need to have the ball in the hands of Walker, Williams and Jones, the scorers," Blair said. "They're seniors, they need to be able to score under pressure."
They all welcome the challenge, as each mentioned last season's final game earlier this month during the team's preseason media day.

 

Key Contributors

Coaches say senior guard Courtney Williams (left photo) has a solid grasp on the Aggies' new motion offense. The team leader with 14.8 points per game last year, she will be counted on to be a threat both scoring and passing. Meanwhile, sophomore Khaalia Hillsman will be key to helping A&M establish a much-needed inside threat. The Chicago product saw significant minutes toward the end of 2014-15 and checks in at 6 feet, 5 inches tall.

"I just want to redeem myself from the NCAA loss we had, and especially when when Arkansas-Little Rock comes here [Dec. 22]," Williams said.

Williams led the team in scoring last season at 14.8 per game, with Walker right behind at 14.3.

This is the first time at A&M for Blair to return his three leading scorers. Each can do much more than score and because of those all-around skills the Aggies have gone to a motion offense. That's a drastic change for the Hall of Fame coach who prides himself on calling plays, but with no proven inside scorer and an abundance of talented guards, Blair has decided to go up-tempo.

"I think [the motion offense] helps everybody," Walker said. "It's just a lot harder to guard because we're spaced out and it gives us a lot more room and one-on-one opportunities to get to the hole or takes shots."

A&M has one of the nation's best distributors in the 5-foot-6 Jones who averaged 6.6 assists per game last season after setting a school record with 261 as a sophomore. Williams averaged a career-high 2.4 last season, but with the new offense that could double.

"You'll see Courtney Williams passing the ball more, she gets it," Blair said. "And a lot of that is just her knowledge of the game. She's a junkie, just like [former All-Americans] Kelsey Bone and Danielle Adams were. She understands my offense right now better than my point guards and Williams is going to have that kind of break-out year."

Joining the Big 3 in the starting lineup are sophomore post Khaalia Hillsman who started last season's final 10 games, and sophomore forward Jasmine Lumpkin, a Michigan State transfer.

The women will do the 12th Man proud, at least early in the season, by having a 12-person rotation. Senior Rachel Mitchell will split time with Hillsman. Other veterans are forward Taylor Cooper along with guards Curtyce Knox, Chelsea Jennings and Shlonte Allen, who took a medical redshirt last season after transferring from Trinity Valley Community College. Highly touted freshman in the mix will be guard Danni Williams and forward Anriel Howard.
"They might be the strongest second group I've ever had since I've been at A&M," Blair said.

They will all play significant minutes and that's not an easy transition for Blair who in the past leaned on his stars more and more as the season progressed.

"At the same time, you wonder if you can afford to take Williams and Walker off the court because of their scoring and knowledge in the offense?" Blair said. "We're going to have to if they're not playing that well on the defensive end. We're going to have to try somebody else and then maybe they'll come back in fresher and play a little bit harder."

Another factor in going with the motion offense is A&M nose-dived a year ago when Jones suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn meniscus in the first half against Missouri, a home game A&M eventually lost 70-69. That was part of A&M losing four of its last five games with the lone victory in the Southeastern Conference Tournament over Auburn, which finished 13th in the league.

"We should have been able to overcome that injury with as much talent as we had, but we didn't," Blair said. "We should have done a better job having our backup point guard ready to handle that situation and other kids should have stepped up. And as coaches, we should have stepped up. That's on us."

A&M's big three each averaged at least 30 minutes per game with Jones and Williams setting career-high marks. Forward Achiri Ade, the only starter who graduated, averaged 27 minutes per game. The first perimeter player off the bench, guard/wing Tori Scott who also graduated, averaged only 14.9 minutes per game.

All signs point to the reserves playing more.

 The new offense looked good in a 92-40 exhibition victory over Texas Wesleyan and in a closed scrimmage in Dallas against UCLA. Jones expertly directed the offense along with showing why she is the two-time defending SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

"I'd say Jordan's about at 90 percent [physically] and about 105 percent mentally, because she's ready to play," Blair said. "Until she gets a lot of confidence in that knee, the driving layup will not be there as much as it's been in the past." 

 The coaching staff is limiting Jones' minutes in practice, and they'll not overuse her in nonconference.

 

Consistent Coaching

Hall of Fame coach Gary Blair is seeking his 11th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. In the last 10 years, the Aggies have become a model of consistency, advancing to the second round eight times while also playing in three Elite Eights.

"No matter what, I have to get a point guard ready for next year," Blair said. "And that's why Knox and Allen are going to play a lot this year, particularly in nonconference games. I'm not going to be playing Jordan 38 minutes per game early, because the most important season starts in January, not in November or December."

Jones' outside shooting improved during her recovery, and along with Williams and Cooper will make it hard on teams that opt to zone the Aggies.

A bigger key to A&M's success could be production from 6-foot-5 Hillsman and 6-foot-7 Mitchell at the five position, which became thinner with the transfer of Jada Terry to Texas Tech. The trio combined to average only 9.6 points and 7.7 rebounds in SEC play, despite playing 33.6 minutes.

"It's about conditioning, it's not talent," Blair said. "It's being able to go harder and longer than what they've been able to give me so far. Remember, this is Mitchell's fifth year, and she didn't have to do it in high school or college yet. She can do it in practice. But conditioning is always good when the team is going good and when you're playing well. All of a sudden when there are mistakes or turnovers or you've missed a couple shots, then they start getting back down to that other end of the floor a lot slower.

"That's where Hillsman is right now. She has worked hard on her body and put in the extra conditioning, but it has to translate onto the court. Can she play Kelsey Bone and Danielle Adams' minutes? And you just can't hope for a TV timeout or a 30-[second timeout]. What you've got to do is to be able to go harder and longer. When she gets tired is when she fouls. And when she fouls, that hurts our whole team."

Blair figures they'll have to combine to score 15-20 points a game to keep opposing defenses honest.

Lumpkin, the only new starter, started 14 out of 15 games last season at Michigan State before transferring. She's get help from the 5-foot-11 Howard, who has an unbelievable vertical jump.

"We're a lot faster at each position than we were last year," Williams said.  Anriel and Jasmine at the four, they have a little more to learn because they're first-year players, but as far as rebounding-wise, quickness and playing on their feet well, I don't think you lose a step from Achiri, so I think that's exciting, especially seeing what they can do on the floor."

SEC coaches thought enough of A&M to be pick it third in the SEC behind South Carolina and Tennessee. The media had the Aggies a spot lower, behind Mississippi State. In the national polls the strength of the SEC shows with A&M ranked 13th by Associated Press and 16th by the coaches.

"Now, we will not be close to being the favorite to win (a national title), you know who the favorite is," said Blair in reference to three-time defending national champ Connecticut. "And they would have to stumble or have injuries, because they've got two of the top five players in the country right there on one team. But at the same time, what did they say about us in 2011 before the season started? Just another good Texas A&M team? People weren't thinking national championships. And then all of a sudden, why not us?"

If things fall in place this year, it also could bode well for the future.

"I think it's a huge year because this is our year to develop next year's team while we're playing these five seniors," Blair said.

Robert Cessna is the executive sports editor of The Eagle in Bryan, Texas.

 

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2015 November

"Coming to Texas A&M definitely changed my life.

To those who support student-athletes by giving, I want to say thanks and gig 'em.

Without them, many young people who aren't financially stable or can't provide an education for themselves have a great opportunity. It makes A&M a better place."

Damontre Moore
Texas A&M Football Letterman, Miami Dolphins Defensive End