ANAHEIM, Calif.--With time quickly expiring in the first half of Thursday evening's Sweet 16 game between Texas A&M and Oklahoma, the Sooners' Jordan Woodard raced toward a loose ball about 15 feet from the offensive basket. With just a few seconds remaining on the shot clock, Woodard had time to grab the ball as he was falling toward the baseline and heave a quick shot toward the rim.
Though A&M played solid defense on the possession, Woodard's low-percentage shot kissed perfectly off the backboard and dropped cleanly through the net.
It was that kind of night for both teams.
The Aggies fell to Oklahoma, 77-63, ending a special season that saw A&M set a school record for wins, claim its first conference title in 30 years and make its third appearance in the Sweet 16. A&M finished the year with a 28-9 record.
Oklahoma (28-7) was spectacular, with five players scoring in double figures. Woodard led everyone with 22 points, and Buddy Hield, the favorite to be national player of the year, chipped in 17 points and 10 rebounds.
"They are the best team we have played, and there's not a doubt in my mind," said A&M coach Billy Kennedy. "They are the best we have played because they're different, they're quick and experienced, and they shoot the ball extremely well."
A&M exploded out of the gate to take a 13-6 lead after five minutes, but the poised, experienced Sooners turned the seven-point deficit into a comfortable lead by the end of the half. OU never trailed after taking a 19-18 lead and held A&M to just two made field goals in the final nine minutes of the frame. The end result was a 45-26 lead, and the Aggies never managed to get within single digits again.
"We came out firing on all cylinders in the first five minutes of the game," said A&M guard Alex Caruso. "Then they made a little bit of a run, and we didn't answer it the way we should have. We dug ourselves a bit of a hole, and against a good team like that, you're not going to be able to come back."
A&M tried to stage a rally in the second half by slicing OU's lead to 11 with 15 minutes remaining in the game, but four three-point plays by Hield, Woodard and Christian James during the next four minutes doused the Aggies' hope of another magical comeback.
Poor free throw shooting didn't help A&M's cause. At one point in the middle of the second half, the Aggies missed eight consecutive freebies.
While Thursday's loss ends the season on a sad note, the main headline for Aggie fans should be that Kennedy's program is relevant again. And make no mistake: 2015-16 was a highly enjoyable ride. The Aggies will greatly miss the senior foursome of Caruso, Danuel House, Jalen Jones and Anthony Collins. The quartet combined for 92 percent of A&M's starts this year and provided sensational leadership to a bevy of younger players.
"I can't say enough about them," Kennedy said. "It starts with Alex. He played for four years and was a true Aggie. He was the first guy that I recruited, and he exemplified what this program is about. Danuel and Jalen, coming in after transferring...really helped us. Anthony did a good job of making us a better team and sacrificing for this program."
In the end, the Sooners' experience may have made the difference. Coach Lon Kruger has now guided OU to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Last year's squad made the Sweet 16, giving the Sooners a bevy of players with experience in March.
That experience showed Thursday night, when Oklahoma withstood A&M's initial onslaught. The Aggies, who only had one player with NCAA experience, weren't able to do the same.
"You could see it in their comfort level," Kennedy said. "They didn't panic. They kept doing what they do and got some lay-ups. Any mistake we made, they took advantage of it and made some plays."
Now, the Aggies will have a roster full of players who have experienced what March Madness is all about. Tyler Davis, Tonny Trocha-Morelos, Admon Gilder, D.J. Hogg are all underclassmen who logged significant minutes Thursday night, and the experience will be one that pays dividends for the team in coming seasons.
"We will take these things that helped us be successful into next season, and that's going to help me be a better leader like these seniors," Davis said. "One of the biggest things I learned from these guys is leadership is key to success. I'm ready to get back to work, take those things into next season and lead our young guys."
12th Man Magazine will have a full season recap of the memorable Aggie basketball season in its April edition.
When it comes down to it, education is the most important thing someone can have, and student-athletes give so much of their time and talents to our school. If we can help support them to earn that diploma and Aggie ring, then that is what we want to do."