By Alex Miller
Cassie Stricker and C. Morgan Engel — THE BATTALION
As the ball bounced out of the rim at the buzzer against Ole Miss on Jan. 16, a collective sigh of relief was felt on the Texas A&M bench.
Breein Tyree missing the potential game-winning shot for the Rebels allowed the Aggies to end a tortuous five-game losing streak.
As strength and conditioning coach Darby Rich described it, A&M had gotten the monkey off its back.
“We’ve been praying for a breakthrough. We’ve been using that word,” A&M head coach Billy Kennedy said after the game. “We got a break. I believed [the shot] was going out. We’ve had too many things go wrong. We were due for something good to happen.”
Just two weeks earlier, the thought of putting an end to such a downhill slide seemed unrealistic. The Aggies had closed non-conference play 11-1 and were ranked No. 5 after seemingly running laps around its opponents. A&M’s lone loss was a 67-63 defeat to Arizona in Phoenix.
“We just knew that the work that we had put in during the summer was really starting to show,” junior center Tyler Davis said. “We were proving to ourselves that we are a good team and our confidence and we know what we’re capable of.”
Then came the downfall.
Riddled with injuries and suspensions, A&M (14-8, 3-6 SEC) dropped five-straight games. Three by 10-plus points, and two by one point.
ENOUGH TO MAKE THE BIG DANCE?
Despite rough start to conference play, Aggies look to make NCAA run
While all teams have the goal of reaching the Final Four, Rich said he felt A&M actually had a realistic shot to make it.
“I just felt like with the roster we had coming back, not just the talent, but the experience across the board, I felt like San Antonio was a legitimate goal for this team,” Rich said.
On top of the Final Four being held in San Antonio, one First and Second Round host site is Dallas. Some NCAA Tournament projections have placed the Aggies in the Metroplex, which Rich said he feels favors A&M.
“You’re talking about four out of six games in your home state,” Rich said. “And the way the 12th Man is, you talk about an advantage.”
There is still a long way to go before A&M can achieve its dream, though.
Fortunately for the Aggies, a parity across the SEC has not shot its resume, which Rich pointed out was also bolstered in non-conference play with quality wins over West Virginia, Southern California and Oklahoma State.
“The SEC in a lot of years, a 9-9 or 10-8 team wasn’t going to have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament,” Rich said. “It used to be there were games if you lost, it just about killed your season and now that’s just not the case which is big for us and other teams in our league.”
Davis has been here before, however, having been a part of the 2016 team that lost five-straight SEC games before turning things around and making the Sweet 16.
Amidst this year’s losing streak, Davis said he tried to replicate the
“You lose so close and you know you’re underhanded and you think about, ‘Well if we had everybody there’s no way we would’ve lost,’” Davis said. “But at the end of the day, you do what you can with what you have and you’ve just got to go out there and repeat it.”
But finally, with a 3-2 stretch in the past two weeks the Aggies are still focused on accomplishing their goal set from the start — reach San Antonio, the site of this year’s Final Four.
“It’s been a battle, but it’s been fun learning and growing and going through a bunch of different situations and having to fight through those things,” Davis said. “We finally feel like we’ve broken through and getting back on track.”
The fire under Davis’ feet was fueled as he walked off the court last March after the Aggies were eliminated in the SEC Tournament. Davis had scored 18 points in the 66-41 loss to Vanderbilt. Only four Aggies scored in the humiliating defeat.
“I remember I was playing so hard that game and we came up short and they really went out and beat us,” Davis recalled. “I knew right away after that game I wanted to start proving people wrong.”
During summer workouts, Rich made San Antonio a talking point. He littered the locker room with motivational flyers and even put up a poster of the Alamodome from the 2008 Final Four.
“It was a full crowd and how big and beautiful it is on the inside,” Davis said of the poster. “It was just telling us that our opportunity is to be there in that
response taken by the core trio of that team — Alex Caruso, Danuel House and Jalen Jones.
“Once we got on that losing streak, it’s like they picked up their intensity and their level of play,” Davis said. “Even in practice it seemed like they went even harder to try and get us to get there with them. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, be a Level 10 guy every day.”
Davis’ work ethic may be spreading among his teammates as well. He said he still sees A&M working at the same pace for the same goal — San Antonio.
“We’ve been through some stuff, but the goal is the same and we’re working like it is, too,” Davis said. “I don’t think the work has dropped off at all. Guys are giving maximum effort to get there and that’s the most important thing, guys are still working like that is the goal as a group and you can’t ask for anything but that.”
Kevin Chou — THE BATTALION
Junior guard Admon Gilder leads the team in average minutes played per game at 30.9. Junior guard Admon Gilder leads the team in average minutes played per game at 30.9.
Graduate transfer guard Duane Wilson averages 25 minutes and 9.6 points per game.