By ROBERT CESSNA
Texas A&M had waited 18 years to host an NCAA women's basketball game, but during Saturday's start against the Albany Great Danes, it looked like the Aggies should have waited at least one more year.
Turns out, the crowd of 6,407 at Reed Arena had to wait only a half for something to celebrate as the third-seeded Aggies awoke and rose to a 69-47 victory.
Slow starts were the day's theme as sixth-seeded Arkansas rallied from a 14-point deficit for a 72-55 victory over 11th-seeded Dayton in the opener. A&M (23-10) will play Arkansas (24-8) at 8:30 p.m. Monday with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16 in Raleigh, N.C.
A&M didn't start as slowly as Arkansas, but it did create plenty of concern for the fans.
"I thought we started to play a little tight, but hey, it's 40 minutes," A&M head coach Gary Blair said. "We played a great 20 minutes in the second half."
Definitely a great final 17 minutes.
A&M began that stretch with a 14-2 run to break from a 32-32 tie, putting the pesky Great Danes behind for good. The Aggies converted a trio of steals into baskets to take the lead, spurring a run that gave A&M a 46-34 lead with 13 minutes, 55 seconds left. The Great Danes (23-10) couldn't get closer than 10 points while having their 10-game winning streak snapped.
A&M's offense, tentative in the first half against Albany's aggressive zone, was much more effective in the second half as Blair orchestrated the plays right in front of his bench.
The smaller Great Danes had double- and triple-teamed A&M posts Kelsey Bone and Karla Gilbert in the first half, holding the Aggies' inside tandem to a combined 2-of-6 shooting with two turnovers. In the second half, Bone and Gilbert did a good job of passing the ball either to someone under the basket on the other side or to freshman point guard Alexia Standish who hit four 3-pointers.
"I missed my first two shots," Standish said. "That might've been excitement or being anxious and not focusing on my form. But I came out in the second half a little more calm and ready to shoot the ball with my feet ready. Once I hit one, I kind of felt it."
A&M also picked up the defensive pressure as Albany made only 9 of 32 shots. Great Dane junior guard Ebone Henry, who had 10 points in the first half, missed 10 of 12 shots.
A&M never got a handle on rebounding, however. The Great Danes had a 48-33 edge in rebounds with 23 of them on the offensive side. A pair of putbacks allowed Albany to tie the game at 32 before the Aggies took control.
Albany, playing in its first NCAA tournament after winning the America East tournament, had trouble handling A&M's pressure. The Great Danes had 24 turnovers which led to 29 A&M points. Albany's Cassandra Callaway had seven turnovers and hit only 1 of 10 shots. She was hounded by A&M senior guard Sydney Carter who forced Albany to handle the ball more which helped explain her poor second-half shooting.
A&M also got a big lift from Aggie senior wing Tyra White who had started 97 straight games until missing the Big 12 tournament with a foot injury. She returned for a game-high 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting with seven rebounds.
"Tyra was so instrumental in this game because she can create her own shot better than any of my other starters," Blair said.
White played 31 minutes and hit a 3-pointer with 13 seconds left for a 30-26 A&M halftime lead.
"We had to expend a lot more energy than I wanted to in this game," Blair said.
Albany was led by juniors Henry and Julie Forster. Henry, the two-time America East Conference's defensive player of the year, had 14 points and nine rebounds and played all 40 minutes. The 6-foot red-headed Forster, a second-team pick in the America East Conference, had eight points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
Forster, a former walkon, had six offensive rebounds as she threw her body around recklessly, much like Carter for A&M.
"Obviously, Julie is amazing," Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. "She's like a flying red cape with her hair just flying through the air."
Albany also got nine points and seven rebounds from 6-8 freshman Megan Craig who started for only the second time in an attempt to match A&M's size. She was one of five Great Danes with at least five rebounds.
"They brought the fight to us," Blair said. "They were the better team in the first half."
A&M, making its seventh straight NCAA tournament appearance, had won its last four first-round games by an average of 36.3 points, beating up on a trio of teams making their maiden voyage in the NCAA tournament -- Texas-San Antonio, Portland State and McNeese State.
Albany, which won 20 games for the first time since becoming a Division I team in 1999, didn't go easily. The Great Danes battled back from a six-point deficit for a 25-25 tie on Ebone's 3-point bank shot with 1:44 left in the first half.
"They just came out really hard competing and we didn't match that intensity," said A&M senior forward Adaora Elonu who had 13 points, nine of them in the second half.