Never mess with a fightin’ Texas Aggie. That’s a good rule of thumb in general, but especially when it comes to Texas A&M women’s basketball, led by the slyest of foxes himself, head coach Gary Blair, do not mess with a Marine, his coffee, or his women’s basketball team—because he’s going to win on all three counts. On Feb. 11, the Aggie women showed the rough, tough real stuff they’re made of in rallying as a family to play the “game of the year” against the Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs, by the score of 64-58.
The matchup had been anticipated for weeks, and this week in particulars, because the Aggies at No. 15, had something to prove in taking on No. 11 Mississippi, and it might not be what you’d think at first that it would be. Yes, every good Aggie knows that Mississippi State is led by former Aggie and head coach Vic Schaefer, along with extended Aggie family and former staffers Johnnie Harris (Associate Head Coach), Maryann Baker (Director of Operations), and Skylar Collins (Director of Scouting/Video Coordinating).
But this was not it was family vs. family at the spring fling family reunion. Not on your life. Instead, it was two basketball defensive geniuses, Vic Schaefer (whom the Aggies always referred to as their Secretary of Defense) and Bob Starkey, the man who put LSU women’s basketball on track and is considered the scholar of all things defensive, and has the books published to prove it.
Both defensive experts put their best strategy on the court, and then it was up to the battle of the head coaching jackets (Schaefer wearing both tags, and Blair’s jacket to see how long it would be before the first coach jettisoned the first suit coat. So, Vic took his coat off first, revealing a maroon shirt that made it slightly more poignant for the Aggie former student to be moving up and down what was his old home court, but just at a different end. Blair’s jacket stayed on longer but when he finally did get frustrated enough to remove it, he tossed it far enough for a field goal. Mike “Radar” Ricke recovered the jacket while Blair regained his calm and cool exterior and went back to strategizing.
Last night’s contest on the floor of Reed Arena brought two of the nation’s most lauded teams, and two of the SEC’s most prolific victors, head-to-head for a fight to the finish. But wait! There’s one more piece to the puzzle that was missing: Jordan Jones, heart and soul of the Aggie team and warrior extraordinaire was not going to be able to play in this matchup.
This was a fact that Blair held close to his vest the entire week, because he knew it would impact the Lady Bulldogs’ strategy in coming to town for what might have been appearing as a “given victory” for the 21-4, 8-3 SEC Mississippi State. It was just last Sunday when the Aggies hosted Holly Warlick’s University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers that Jordan Jones became the human pawn who took the charge that saved the Aggies in a fight-to-the-depths-of-frustration contest.
Just four days before the Lady Bulldogs arrived, Jordan was literally clocked and hit the deck at Reed Arena where the crowd again went silent in prayer and reflection as it looked like it was “Missouri” all over again, from the year before. Fortunately, Jordan was released from the hospital and with concussion protocol and the best doctors monitoring the situation at least she was not out for the rest of the season. But Thursday night’s contest was a big ‘if’ and there was a 90% chance the ‘if’ was “no way.”
At Monday night’s Gary Blair radio show broadcast, Blair held forth with good humor as he said, “I know you’re listening to this broadcast Vic, because I’d be doing the same thing, and we don’t know if Jordan will be able to play or not.” Blair continued, “Yes, I know we’re all family, and brother Vic and I are going to hug after it’s all over, but first we’re going to play some basketball.” And did the Aggies ever play basketball.
The unsung hero, the 6th man, the 12th man and the woman who could and did make the difference for the Aggies was none other than Curtyce Knox. That young woman showed maturity, resilience, courage, and she talked on the court all night long. And talk about talk—every Aggie was talking to each other out there on the court and staying in constant communication. More importantly, the Aggies were listening to each other because that is what family does.
Let’s face it. Women’s athletics is a category of competition that requires a perfect balance of strategy, skill, communication and strength. It tests character, it requires courage and leadership skills, the likes of which are unparalleled either come out in a player when pushed to the limit, or they will hold a team back all day and all night if they’re lacking.
Curtyce Knox set the tone and every Aggie on the court followed her example and it was not just about winning the game for Jordan. It was not just about doing their coaches’ bidding in running plays. Instead, it was about each player putting down any past “business” or drama and focusing on each other first, team first, victory first, and the Aggie family won that game last night—for each other. Knox’s skill really was not a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention for oh, three years or so, as the redshirt junior has been preparing and remaining prepared for yesterday’s game all this time.
When Jordan broke her leg in the Missouri game last year, other players on the team who were used to her leadership rallied together but it was Chelsea Jennings who stepped up to a new level of play, having been called on more then. She responded beautifully to every challenge. But last night, particularly when Curtyce was in, the Aggie team was verbal, responsive, and enthusiastic as she dished out 5 assists and had 1 steal, plus 4 defensive rebounds.
Now, Knox only had 4 points by the end of the game, but 2 of those points were a major key to the Aggie victory as she visibly made “something out of nothing.” The Aggies were being held outside the key on a particular series of plays, so Curtyce managed to sneak inside, and what was even more brilliant, she propelled herself up like an elevator between towering Lady Bulldog players, and made a basket that for all intents and purposes was not even there to be made. The crowd of 5645 people went nuts.
Head Coach Gary Blair said:
The key basket in the second half was Curtyce Knox’s; the little layup underneath where there was nothing there. We had nobody open and we had nobody behind her. How she got that thing up in a forest of trees there just give a little credit.”
Freshman Shlonte Allen saw some good minutes as well, and Blair commended her as well. Allen played with confidence and although some of her shots didn’t find the accuracy she was hoping for, her 11 minutes were important and gave the Aggies 6 very valuable points.
The scoring deficits throughout most of the game by both teams outlined what was really going on—a defensive fight to the finish between Schaefer and Starkey. It was not as much missed shots (yes, there were plenty of those on both sides to go around) but simply not allowing players into the easy shots. The first quarter the Aggies shot 17.6%, 3 of 17. Have you ever thought you’d see a success percentage that low? Across the half court, the Mississippi State sure-shots were just as rattled at 23.5%, 4 of 17.
Things perked up a bit in the second period, with the Aggies at 44.4% and the Lady Bulldogs at 40%. The first half ended a decided Mississippi State advantage when Taylor Cooper came in and made a 3 to close out the half with the Aggies only down by 6 rather than the 11-point routing that appeared to be the Aggies’ halftime fate. Probably not in the history of Aggie women’s basketball in however many years has there been a halftime score of 32-26 with the Aggies on the bottom like that. It was Starkey vs. Schaefer in the defensive struggle and the first half went to Schaefer.
But Starkey was like “come into my parlor said the spider to the fly” with his plans. Blair added a few “old-school” change-ups such as rotating Knox, Allen, and introducing the effervescent Anriel Howard into the mix so often that you really did need to keep checking the jumbotron to see who was or was not in the lineup. Anriel continued her “queen of rebounding” title she is en route to, picking up 4 offensive and 3 defensive rebounds and 1 steal in her 24 minutes of play—very admirable for a freshman. The rotating players made it confusing for the Lady Bulldogs who’d had the scouting report done for days, with and without Jordan in the mix.
Then, the second half was the make-or-break time for the Aggies. This was also “the game” to win as it had such substantive meaning for the current and future outlook for the Aggies in the SEC tournament and beyond to the NCAA standings. Home court advantage almost disappeared when the baskets at both ends of the court seemed entirely unwilling to let a ball go through the net. Time and again the ball went in and popped back out again, making you wonder if the old “Candid Camera” wasn’t nearby waiting to surprise you. Except this wasn’t any kind of funny.
The Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs played their hearts out. Starting stars Dominique Dillingham and Victoria Vivians played the entire game. Morgan William played all but 2 minutes of the game and was deadly with 9 of 10 free throws, leading all scorers with 18 points. Combined, they accounted for 42 of Mississippi State’s 58 total points. Breanna Richardson added 9 key points and 6 rebounds; Chinwe Okorie came up with 7 rebounds and 22 important minutes. Teaira McCowan gained 6 more rebounds and contributed 5 points. To look at the Lady Bulldogs’ 42 rebounds and the Aggies 39 rebounds, you get the full picture of every missed shot that endured all 40 minutes.
So, what was the difference? The Aggies’ two Courtneys. Once again, the brilliance of Courtney Walker shone through, despite having been double teamed a lot of the evening. But when the Lady Bulldogs were busy occupying her phase space, the brilliance of Courtney Williams was eating their lunch. Williams played the game of her life, at least of the season, and was top scorer with 22 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block and 2 steals. Her one 3-point basket that was slow-motion brilliance as it found the net brought the Aggie crowd of 5,645 to its feet in mass exhilaration.
Williams was nothing short of phenomenal for the Aggies and the crowd collectively grew hoarse yelling and screaming accolades, whoops, whistles and, registering some disagreement with various judgments by the referees at times.
When someone from Starkville finally got over on the court to keep an eye on Williams, then here comes Walker, inside, outside, around, in and through the players, landing 21 points for her 40 full minutes of play. Freshman Danni Williams played 1 minute but she was fouled on her shot and landed both free throws, cold, for the Aggies, important when every ‘bunny’ counted. Jasmine Lumpkin played 8 key minutes and although she didn’t make stats, she was invaluable in her excellent awareness of play around her and you can see why she is so valuable to the team. It’s often all the play off the stat sheets that makes the difference.
Bob Starkey’s “bigs” answered the call when answered all night long. Khaalia Hillsman played 19 minutes, grabbed 5 rebounds, 1 block, and made 4 points. Rachel Mitchell played 19 minutes, and got an important block plus she played disarming defense that Blair likes to call “bank robber”—keep both hands in the air and mess with the opposing team’s view of the basket. The referees for the evening were Michael Price, Bryan Enterline, and Missy Brooks. Were they musicians one could say they played the whistle—all night long and many in the pro-Aggie crowd disagreed with their judgment, often.
All 11 players on the Aggie team saw action last night and it’s unquestioned that every player made a difference. They were united as never before, and not only was it “for Jordan,” it was “for themselves” to know they are a fearsome fighting defensive force and a talented offense to boot. The Aggies are now 17-7, 7-4 in the SEC, while Mississippi State is at 21-5, 8-4 in the SEC. Next Aggie home game is Feb. 18 with the BTHO breast cancer game, so either buy a new pink t-shirt or wear your shirt from last year.
It’s only the middle of February and there are so many, many more games to be played. Coach Blair would want to remind you that the Aggie home crowd makes a difference, so every single person in a bleacher seat does, truly, make the difference in Aggie victories.
The 12th Man was on the court and in the seats at Reed Arena. It was really great for the crowd to see Coach Vic Schaefer, Coach Johnnie Harris, Maryann Baker, and Skylar Collins again, but it was definitely great for the Aggie fans to have their team end the night as the victors. It was also the 200th victory for the Aggies at Reed Arena as well, just one more reason to smile at the latest milestone.