With less than an hour to go before game time on March 19, the press release from Texas A&M women’s basketball arrived in the media in-boxes at 2:20 p.m. No big deal, right? Just a little by-the-way note prior to NCAA tourney play at Reed Arena. The Aggie women, a miraculous No. 4 seed (thank you Gary Blair for “strength of schedule”), welcomed the No. 13 seed Missouri State University at Reed Arena for their opening round of 2016 NCAA tournament play to be broadcast on ESPN. Nothing big at stake. Just a trip toward the Final Four on the line, the same NCAA Final Four whose logo Jordan Jones has been keeping as a screensaver on her computer for about four years now. No big deal.
The statement read simply: “Women’s basketball junior guard Shlonte Allen and senior guard/forward Courtney Williams have been suspended indefinitely, beginning with today’s game against Missouri State, for a violation of team rules. They are eligible to practice with the team while suspended.”
Oh no. Not this senior, not the one whose pro career was just outside a closed door, waiting to be opened. Surreal, unreal, and one bad feeling after another surely welled up in the throats of the Aggie team whenever it was that they heard the news. Apparently the television announcers couldn’t stop talking about it, standard procedure when failing to talk about who you do see, rather than who you do not see. But, Aggie fans must not be similarly quick to judge, nor assume, nor fear.
No matter what it was that caused the suspension, the circumstances surrounding the behavior are, unfortunate, emblematic of the one underlying current of discontent that has impacted this year’s seniors. The “strength of schedule” these players have faced is the reason they’re a No. 4 seed, which means that they don’t have a series of hollowed out gimme games skewing perception. Williams is a great contributor to this team and a major reason the Aggies have had the No. 2 recruiting class in the country for four years now. She’s a great talent. Shlonte Allen is an intelligent player and quick learner, anxious to contribute her skills to the team as well. Both are bright girls. Hang in there and be patient. Things will turn around for them and for the team.
If Aggie women’s basketball fans had a nickel for every time Head Coach Gary Blair referred to three of his seniors as his “law firm,” they’d be wealthy. With grand pride and great confidence, Coach Blair has always lauded the triple-threat trio of Courtney Walker, Jordan Jones, and Courtney Williams. On gentle, grand days, Blair will speak of “the CWs,” “my two Courtney’s” or “Walker and Williams” with equal aplomb with “and Jordan” or “JJ.”
Yet, when one of the senior partners is missing, it not only jeopardizes a win, it plays havoc with the confidence to execute a master game plan that all the coaches have scouted for, planned on and stayed up all night (like Bob Starkey does) to configure. That’s real and it was never more shown out to be true than the entire first half of the game yesterday.
Now, there’s no way to know (and it’s not really our business to ask) why the suspension; it’s just the requirement of women’s basketball to alert the media to know who’s playing. But the first question that sprang to mind was not “what did Williams and Allen do?” but instead, “How will this affect the law firm?” Yes, earlier this season Ms. Williams sat on the bench for rules violation but the team has played well with and without her and there’s no doubt her teammates love her—unconditionally—as do the Aggie fans, when it all comes right down to it.
Aggie fans actually think of “five” key seniors on the team, as Rachel Mitchell has already graduated but stayed for her last year of eligibility and Chelsea Jennings has been the Aggies’ saving grace in more games than anyone has fingers on hands to count with. So, the law firm is actually a major corporation, but you know Coach Blair, the marketing genius; he keeps it simple, even if the fans can handle remembering five names.
Girls, young women, adults, grown-ups, or competitive athletes of a professional caliber, call them what you will—it barely seems feasible to think that these three amazing players are now seniors playing in their final NCAA tournament before graduating. Yes, graduating—Blair’s kids graduate; it’s a condition with him. Just weeks ago, Ms. Williams was so excited about getting her Aggie senior ring. She’s resilient and she’s a talent that any team would be proud to have. And she’ll take care of business. You’d know that without question if you have ever had a conversation with her. Texas A&M can be proud of her every day.
Cee-Will is a repeat All-SEC team player, doesn’t matter which team—first or second. She played last summer for the USA Basketball National Team. Her future has been, and remains, bright in terms of a professional basketball future. And this afternoon she was named as being in violation of team rules and suspended indefinitely. Fans hope that whatever measures need to be taken are taken and the fans will also let the coaches handle the issues, as that’s their jobs.
As any March Madness fan has seen for the past three exhilarating days of the NCAA tournament, forget what seed your team has been assigned. Check your win-loss record at the front door of the arena. And, never take anything for granted as you count on all hands on deck to show up. Because they won’t. The Aggies began opening play down two players and minus some serious peace of mind.
There were some great things that happened (see story link below) but mostly what happened the first half was like a mashup of “The Titanic” met “Looney Tunes” met “I Saw the Light” met “The “Miracles from Heaven,” in that the ship almost sank because of some crazy things. Very soon after Gary Blair did his famous “jacket toss to Radar (Mike Ricke),” the Marine crazy man side came out. He jumped up and down in fury on the sidelines in a way that no one had ever seen before, and he kept Jordan Jones in the game much longer than people expected. He also hugged his players as they came out of the game toward the end.
Hank Williams once wrote: “People don’t write music; it’s given to them.” Courtney Walker saw the light about to fade on the chance for the Aggies to advance, and she saw the curtain ready to boom down on all the Aggies hopes and dreams that could have just as easily and readily ended this afternoon. Game over. Bottomed out again in the first round, like a bad nightmare rerun of the Aggies play against Nebraska not that long ago. Walker gave the Aggies the words and music to create the win. One more time she put her team on her back and she just kept telling Jordan and Curtyce, “Feed me the ball.” Chelsea Jennings was an exceptional and truly consistent player all day long.
And the dual team sports talent (track and field plus basketball), Anriel Howard, tuned out every single molecule of negativity in Reed Arena today and reminded all who were in attendance or tuned in that Texas A&M women’s basketball may be graduating five of its superstars, but there’s some new kids in town, and they’re here to stay and play, and set some NCAA, Texas A&M and Reed Arena records along the way. More on that later, about how the young lady nicknamed “Lashes” ran a rebounding clinic and got compared to an NBA superstar by her coach.
Let’s get back to Courtney Walker. If there was ever one player who plays the way Gary Blair expects, it’s Cee-Walk. Today she had 29 points, played 32 minutes, had 4 rebounds, and 1 block. Yes, she had 8 turnovers in the first half, but she was a perfect 7 for 7 on her free throws. This young woman is supersonic as she speeds up and down the court; this single game was likely the least amount of game time she’s been playing as she had a few minutes to rest every now and again while Jasmine Lumpkin, Taylor Cooper, and Danni Williams each saw some NCAA tourney play action time today. Typically, Walker is in all game, every game, and typically she gets double teamed on defense but she will break through and find a way to score.
Chelsea Jennings is the most understated dynamic player for Texas A&M and has been all season long. Blair has bragged on her to radio audiences about her skill in the classroom on architecture projects as much as her inevitable presence in the gym, shooting day and night to get it right. She’s often joined by Walker, the constant self-starter who does not need to be reminded what her duties are. Senior leadership on both counts; they were the two chosen to greet the opponents today before tipoff.
Rachel Mitchell and Khaalia Hillsman shared post time today, and Rachel had 3 blocks, 3 points, and 5 rebounds; Hillsman had 1 block, 6 points, and 8 rebounds. Coach Bob Starkey was complimentary of Rachel’s defense and his words about Anriel Howard were the ultimate compliment shared upon a player. The rebounds were not just important; they were the lifeblood of the game, as the Aggies shot only 46% of their field goals and were 3 of 5 on the three-point tries.
But the passing was an unmitigated mess. Jordan, Courtney Walker, and Chelsea Jennings each had their share of passes that drew the crowd’s comments such as “Are you kidding me?” “Look where you’re throwing,” and “What in the world is wrong with you all?” If you’re a fan, that’s a fair group of sentences to loft in the air as it’s so entirely uncharacteristic of this team. They may have been missing baskets on crummy shooting for various spells in certain games but they’ve never been as bad at passes and turnovers (24 of those little gems) as they were today. Twenty-four turnovers in 40 minutes is, well, you do the math.
One thing to keep in mind, however, was what was modestly and calmly stated by Courtney Walker at a recent Gary Blair radio show interview at Rudy’s BBQ. She laid out her case, beginning with (paraphrasing from memory) “A lot of times the fans watch our games and they think they know us, and our skills, and how we should be playing. We appreciate that they are that devoted. But sometimes they don’t know the game plan. They may see one of us leaving a certain player open and that person might make a shot that goes in. Immediately they think, ‘You missed your job.’ In fact, that’s not the case. Our coaches have scouted and we’ve studied the players who shoot, and if we leave one alone, often we know they rarely shoot and we’ll double team someone who does shoot. It’s not always as it appears.”
Just as true as the fans do not know what the game plan is, neither do they know the lives and pressures that each one of these girls takes on in playing NCAA D1 basketball. You’ve never walked a mile in their shoes; you have no concept of what they’ve had to endure to reach this point in their very young lives. If you’re an Aggie fan, then love, do not judge, this Aggie team, because all day and all night, this is the Texas Aggie family and families stick together, or at least that’s the way we always heard it should be.
That’s how important it is for the fans to show up and embrace the sport, embrace the school, embrace the team, but leave the coaching to the coaches. It’s hard, though, when you’re spoiled rotten by a 2011 National Championship. It’s rough when you’ve seen players like Jordan Jones take charge after brutal charge “for her team” and get knocked down like a bulldozer ran over her, and she’s back up when she shouldn’t even be standing up, “for her team.”
Jones may be a variable in flux when it comes to accuracy in passing for today, but there’s no question that she is the team leader on the court and they are all playing with and for her. But today, Walker and Jones et al. were without Williams. One can only imagine that they had one thing on their minds, more than any x’s or o’s on the wipe-off board: How will this team do without Cee-Will today?
What are we going to have to do to step up our game and absorb the extra work? And surely they knew what a suspension for violation of team rules could do to a possible WNBA draft positioning for their friend. If you’re not seen in the game, you’re not seen in a national showcase that only enhances the possibilities of those being viewed being the ones worth fighting over rather than the ones left over. Pretty cold. Pretty cruel. Pretty calculating. That’s reality.
Now, it’s true, the Aggies win with and without one player in the lineup. But Courtney Williams’ presence does matter, substantially, in both a real and present as well as conceptual sense to her teammates and to her Aggie family, which includes everyone in Reed Arena there for every single game for “their Courtney’s” as in two, not one. And without question, all the Aggies love their two Courtney’s.
There have been times all along this year when the “perception” of this team is one as a family untied, rather than united. No one knows why or how and that’s up to the players and coaches to know. But, when it impacts their productivity and work, then it’s a clearly disruptive force. Today’s early struggles by the Aggies can likely be attributed to one factor more than any other: two teammates were suspended indefinitely. But, there’s hope for the future in the word “indefinitely” and the fact that they can still practice with the team while suspended is a great thing to look forward to.
Thanks to record-setting Anriel Howard, Courtney Walker, and Chelsea Jennings, Rachel Mitchell, and Khaalia Hillsman, and the enthusiasm of all the bench, the Aggies (22-9) beat the Missouri State (24-10) team 74-65. On Sunday they get to practice, watch film, and think a lot on how well they must play to beat the Florida State Seminoles. Monday’ game begins at 5:30 p.m. and the students (and faculty) will be back in town, so all fans are encouraged to make the effort to be there with loud voices ready to cheer their team on to Dallas. Come out and support the family; every single one will be welcomed in, even if it’s your very first basketball game to attend. That’s just what family does.