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Texas A&M women's basketball team taking baby steps but has bigger aspirations

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The Texas A&M women’s basketball team hasn’t won a Southeastern Conference game, and it might not in 2023. The Aggies have lost eight straight for their longest losing streak since 2004 as they approach the program record of 11. It’s somewhat mind-boggling considering just 12 years ago A&M won the national championship.

These are trying times, but don’t blame the players or coach. Heck, Joni Taylor should be considered for the SEC’s coach of the year. She has consistently gotten the most from her players. A&M’s first-year head coach just doesn’t have enough of them, and some are being asked to do things that are virtually impossible considering the circumstances.

A&M (5-12, 0-7) again will have seven available players for Sunday’s game against Georgia (13-7, 2-4). It will be the sixth straight game and eighth overall the Aggies will have just two substitutes as injuries have left A&M undermanned for every SEC game this season.

Georgia is typical in that it has eight players who have seen action in every SEC game so far this season. The Lady Bulldogs also have three others who have played in at least four conference games.

But it’s not only that opponents keep throwing fresh legs at A&M, they’re also doing it with better players.

A&M’s unavailable players include freshman forward Janiah Barker and junior guard Sahara Jones, who both started the season opener. Barker’s 12.1-point average in seven games still leads the team, and Jones was averaging 8.5 points a game through 12 games that still ranks third. Sophomore guard Tineya Hilton and senior center Sydnee Roby were averaging a combined 10.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game when they got hurt. That’s a lot of missing firepower.

Even before the injuries, the Aggies suffered a huge blow when senior point guard Jordan Nixon retired during the offseason. The two-year starter had averaged 10.5 points and 3.8 assists per game. She was more than numbers, though — she also was a leader. Even if Nixon had played and A&M didn’t have injuries, the Aggies were picked to finish 11th in the SEC by both the coaches and the media. In all likelihood it was going to be a long year.

“Even with a full roster, this could have happened,” Taylor said. “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

Taylor inherited baggage from a team that went 14-15 last season for the program’s first losing one since 2004. A&M went just 4-12 in the SEC, tying for 12th. The team had its share of good players — Kayla Wells, Destiny Pitts and Qadashah Hoppie who were all in their fifth year. Good players didn’t add up to a good team as A&M woefully failed to live up to its No. 23 preseason ranking. The only saving thing about last season was it being the swan song for Hall of Fame coach Gary Blair. You couldn’t beat the hoopla off the court, but just about every above-average team beat the Aggies on the court.

A&M needed a breath of fresh air. It needed a second coming of Blair. Taylor has supplied it despite the tough sledding. She is building this program from the basement with raw material.

Two of A&M’s seven available players are freshmen. The other five combined for only 17 SEC starts last season, 13 of them by graduate post Aaliyah Patty, who along with graduate guard MacKinzie Green were the lone returners to average at least 10 minutes a game.

“They’ve never been through this before,” Taylor said. “This is a process we are going through.”

Offense has been especially challenging for A&M as it struggles with turnovers. A&M averages 51.2 points per game to rank 340th out of 350 NCAA Division I schools. A&M is the lowest-scoring Power Five conference team, 64 spots behind Wake Forest (60.3).

A&M, though, is good on defense. The Aggies allow only 58.8 points a game to rank 69th nationally. It’s the highest-ranked defensive team among Power Five conference teams with losing records. The next closest is 7-12 TCU (64.8) at No. 205. That’s impressive on several fronts. A&M doesn’t have an intimidating post player, nor someone with a lot of steals. The Aggies are doing it with hustle and coaching.

Effort hasn’t been an issue for the Aggies this season, and they’ve managed to get better at practice and in games by reaching team goals. They pay attention to detail and can see they are improving.

“We’re having a blast coaching them,” Taylor said last week. “I know that sounds crazy considering that we’re 0-6, but they’re coachable. They’re teachable, and we are enjoying this process.”

Taylor coaches with grace and speaks her players’ language. They speak of her as if she’s a wiser, older sister, and Taylor has kept smiling and been 100% positive throughout her toughest stretch as a head coach.

Five games was her longest losing streak in seven seasons as head coach at Georgia, though as an assistant for four seasons under legendary Georgia coach Andy Landers the Lady Bulldogs did lose eight straight in his last season. That paled to Taylor’s 2008-09 season as an assistant at Alabama, her alma mater. First-year head coach Wendell Hudson went 1-13 in the SEC that included an 11-game losing streak during a season that taught Taylor plenty.

“I did not handle that very well as an assistant,” Taylor said. “I’m competitive. I’d never been in a situation where we lost, and I did not handle it well.”

Losing consumed her so much that one day she went for her daily 15-minute run and an hour and half later she had no idea where she was, something she laughs about now.

“And that’s how I became a runner,” Taylor said.

That also helped make her a better coach.

“It prepared me for going through it now, so I am fine,” Taylor said. “I am great. Our staff is great, and it’s our job to make sure our players are great.”

More importantly, the program is taking shape. The seven available players are taking their lumps, but freshman guard Sydney Bowles is an all-conference player in the making. The others will return next year better for the experience. In the seven games before breaking a bone in her shooting wrist, Barker showed she’s an All-American in the making.

Next year will be promising if A&M just avoids injuries. Expectations will be higher because the talent pool will be improved by the addition of a trio of top 100 signees led by Mansfield Lake Ridge guard Kylie Marshall. She’s the state’s first top-ranked player to sign with the Aggies.

It’s not a question of if but when A&M returns to the Top 25. It will be easy for fans to jump on the bandwagon next season or the following year, but in the meantime, don’t lose track of the foundation Taylor and this team is laying down.

NOTES: Sunday’s 2 p.m. game at Reed Arena is A&M’s annual white-out game. Fans are encouraged to wear white. ... It will be televised by the SEC Network (Optimum Ch. 40). ... A&M leads the all-time series with Georgia 9-5, winning last season’s game 67-58. ... Georgia replaced Taylor with South Florida’s Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, who was 131-49 in six seasons with the Bulls, making the last three NCAA tournaments. She also coached at Albany from 2010-16. The Aggies beat Albany 69-47 in the first round of the 2012 NCAA tournament at Reed Arena. ... Abrahamson-Henderson brought three UCF players with her, part of Georgia’s 10 newcomers that includes six transfers and four freshmen. The 10 newcomers ties Kentucky for the most in the SEC this season. ... The Lady Bulldogs have only five returners who played for Taylor. Senior guard Chloe Chapman (2.7 points per game) and senior forward Jordan Isaacs (2.5 ppg) are starters, while senior forward Javyn Nicholson (8.2 ppg) has started half the games. ... UCF transfers Diamond Battles (13.7 ppg) and Brittney Smith (12.6) lead Georgia in scoring. ... Georgia forces 20.7 turnovers per game.

Robert Cessna’s email address is robert.cessna@theeagle.com.

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