Sunday’s titanic basketball game at Reed Arena has been 10 years in the making.
The third-ranked Texas A&M women will host fifth-ranked South Carolina in arguably the Aggies’ biggest game since winning the national championship a decade ago. With a victory, A&M would win its first Southeastern Conference regular-season title and all but assure the Aggies a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament, which would be another first.
“Yes, we look at the banners up there [in Reed Arena],” A&M coach Gary Blair said. “And we see that ’07 banner up there, and that was the last time we’ve won a regular-season conference championship and that was a special day.”
Sunday already is special because it will be the first top five matchup in Reed Arena’s history.
“You just live for the moment,” Blair said. “You do not want to miss those moments in life. It’s not about winning or losing as much as it’s having the opportunity to be in this environment and play for a championship. It does not happen [often].”
Both teams have Final Four resumes.
Defending SEC champion South Carolina (19-3, 14-1) is 8-2 against ranked teams this season, while A&M (21-1, 12-1) is 8-0 with its best overall record through 22 games in program history. The Gamecocks were ranked ahead of the Aggies all season until this week after losing to 21st-ranked Tennessee 75-67 on Feb. 18. South Carolina was ranked No. 1 last year when the season ended because of COVID-19, finishing at 32-1 overall and 16-0 in SEC play to win the title by three games.
“We’ve never actually been in this situation last year, because by this time we were the regular-season champions,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley told Columbia, South Carolina’s The State. “So I’m actually looking forward to seeing how this team approaches it, how this team is able to execute, especially on the road against a really good basketball team. So I hope our experiences as far as the schedule that we played, I hope we can put it all together and win a big game like this.”
A&M needs to win this big game to remain ranked ahead of the Gamecocks and possibly win over lingering doubters among the national media
“The commentators do not believe we’re for real. That’s the bottom line,” Blair said. “I don’t think they thought we were real when we lost to Baylor three straight times in 2011. I don’t know if we’re for real, but I know one thing: We’ve taken care of business all year.”
A&M’s 2011 team ultimately took care of business by beating Baylor in the Elite Eight, ending an eight-game losing streak to the Lady Bears. Like Baylor, South Carolina has been a thorn in A&M’s side, having won seven straight over the Aggies. The Gamecocks’ style also mirrors Baylor’s as they’re a great defensive team led by 6-foot-5 sophomore center Aliyah Boston, who averages 13 points, 11.7 rebounds and three blocks per game.
“Boston is the best in the country at blocking shots against big-time opponents,” Blair said. “She’s the best defensive player in our league because of the way she changes the game.’
Blair compares Boston’s impact to that of former Baylor All-American Brittney Griner when the Aggies faced her regularly in the Big 12 Conference.
“[Boston’s] leverage and her jumping ability and the ability to change shots and deflect shots or just keep you from shooting [affects shooters” Blair said, “just because you don’t want to see that aircraft carrier in there.”
Boston’s presence allows South Carolina to average 7.2 blocks and 7.4 steals per game. She also helps the Gamecocks lead the SEC in scoring defense as they allow only 59.1 points a game.
“She’s really doing it all for them,” A&M post Ciera Johnson said. “It’s going to take a team effort to try to slow her down and contain her. There’s no stopping her. You just want to contain her as much as possible.”
Boston is complemented by 5-9 sophomore guard Zia Cooke “who has really coming into her own in conference,” Blair said, along with junior Destiny Henderson, whom Blair says “is as quick as anybody in the league at the point guard position.”
A&M has the playmakers to crack South Carolina’s defense and contain Boston.
Johnson and forward N’dea Jones combine to average 22.5 points and 17.9 rebounds a game. Guards Aaliyah Wilson, Kayla Wells and Jordan Nixon are good at driving and drawing fouls, resulting in them hitting 154 of 196 free throws for 78.6%, and they’ve also teamed with Destiny Pitts to hit 94 of 236 of 3-pointers for 39.9%.
“South Carolina is a heavy transition-offensive team, because their half-court defense is that good,” Blair said. “The teams that have stayed close to them have basically had to hit outside shots or been able to score inside off some drives.”
A&M will have to win the game by winning the game in the lane, Blair said. In its last 16 games, South Carolina has scored more than 50% of its points in the paint in every game and topped 70% seven times, Blair said.
“The key is limiting their paint touches,” Blair said. “But can we get our paints touches and not have to change our shots? We missed 18 layups or paint opportunities last year at South Carolina and played very well [in a 60-52 loss]. We can’t miss 18 of those opportunities like we did last year.”
A&M has two advantages in senior leadership and the home court.
South Carolina has only one senior in its top eight players, while A&M has five. Three of A&M’s seniors — Johnson, Jones and Wells — have started 86 consecutive games. They’ve made a pair of Sweet 16 appearances, but last year the Aggies lost their last three games and were projected to be only a No. 5 seed for the NCAA tournament when it was canceled because of COVID-19.
Johnson said beating South Carolina and winning the SEC would be the first layer of icing on the cake with the SEC tournament an NCAA tournament to come.
“We’ve been through so much adversity since we’ve been here,” Johnson said. “We’ve been through so many ups and downs.”
Sunday also will be A&M’s Senior Day, and the Aggies will be cheered on by the largest crowd of the season. Blair said having 3,500 fans at Reed Arena will be huge, considering they’ve been playing before crowds of 200-700.
“We’re going to have people in the upper deck for the first time since probably 2012 or ’13,” Blair said. “And I’m going to love seeing it. Even though we’re going to be spread out, we’re going to be able to hear that Aggie spirit.”
NOTES — A&M has won nine straight since a 65-61 overtime loss at LSU. “I like where our team is,” Blair said. “It isn’t overconfident, but we’re not under confident either.” ... Nixon and Boston were AAU teammates in New York City for three summers on IEXCCEL. They won several tournaments, including the Nike National Championship in Chicago and The National Championship in Atlanta. “Aliyah and I go way back,” Nixon said. “I was in ninth grade and she was in eighth grade,” Nixon said, adding that they often talk on the phone and planned on doing so Saturday. ... General admission tickets are sold out for the game. A&M sports-pass holders and students are encouraged to attend, A&M said on Twitter, and they will be “accommodated on a first-come, first-served basis.”