Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter certainly has a flair for the dramatic.
Her injured pinky finger was a hot topic for 19 days, which got even hotter when she missed her first shot Friday afternoon against Wright State. Carter then hit three straight 3-pointers and capped A&M’s 20-8 start with a driving layup, hitting the floor as she often does. Carter added the free throw to complete the three-point play as the 14th-ranked Aggies (25-7) cruised to a 84-61 victory over the Raiders in opening action of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament at Reed Arena.
The Aggies advance to play 18th-ranked Marquette (27-7) in the second round at 1 p.m. Sunday. Marquette defeated Rice 58-54 in overtime in Friday’s first game at Reed Arena.
The second game wasn’t as exciting, save for the partisan crowd of 2,617. Carter had a game-high 27 points as A&M led by double digits the last three and half quarters. The big lead allowed Carter to watch the last 5:56 on the bench.
“I guess the saga of ‘Pinky-gate’ is over with,” A&M coach Gary Blair said.
Carter missed the Southeastern Conference tournament after she had surgery to repair two fractures on the pinky finger of her shooting hand. A&M managed to split two games without the SEC’s leading scorer, a showing good enough to earn A&M a No. 4 seed for the NCAA tournament.
With Carter back in the lineup, the Aggies played like the team that closed the regular season winning 12 of 14 to claim third place in the SEC. Carter hit 8 of 19 field goals and 8 of 11 free throws, and the other starters also had solid efforts with each shooting at least 40 percent from the field. Sophomore guard Kayla Wells had 17 points on the strength of hitting 5 of 9 3-pointers. A&M’s plan was to push the ball inside against Wright State, which had only one starter taller than 5-foot-10. But Wells hit a 3-pointer to break a 2-2 tie, and the Aggies hit four more to stretch the lead to 17-8.
“My first 3 I was wide open, so I was going to shoot it,” Wells said. “After I started making them, I just kept shooting the ball, and they were going in. I think the same goes for Chennedy.”
A&M cooled off in the second quarter, hitting only 3 of 14 field goals. That allowed Wright State to pull within 42-29 by halftime.
A&M got the ball inside to start the second half as 6-4 sophomore post Cierra Johnson had back-to-back three-point plays and 6-2 sophomore forward D’nea Jones hit a pair of free throws to push the lead to 50-31, ending any thought of a comeback by Wright State.
Johnson scored 15 points and Jones added 11. Junior point guard Shambria Washington had only six points but added seven assists and a team-high nine rebounds. Fellow 5-7 mighty mite Carter added seven rebounds as they combined to have three more rebounds than Johnson and Jones.
Washington, a junior college transfer, replaced sophomore shooting guard Aaliyah Wilson earlier this season when Wilson suffered a season-ending knee injury in the ninth game.
“I thought we hit a home run on signing Sham Washington, and she proved it today,” Blair said. “She dissected their zone. We got what we wanted.”
A&M made 25 of 56 field goals (44.6 percent) and 26 of 35 free throws (74.3 percent).
A&M, which had to replace four starters off last season’s Sweet 16 team, is a victory away from matching that team’s run after dispatching of the Horizon League winners who were making only their second NCAA tournament appearance.
The Raiders got plenty of open looks but made only 24 of 80 field goals (30 percent), including 8 of 30 on 3-pointers. While Carter and Wells jump-started the Aggies, the Raiders missed 5 of 21 shots in the first quarter.
“I think sometimes you get adrenaline going,” Wright State coach Katrina Merriweather said. “I don’t think it is because the game was too fast. I don’t think there was anything incredible happening defensively. I do think that there’s just a lot that goes into this game today, and so I can admit that we maybe had some jitters from the very beginning.”
Wright State, which played only one Power Five conference team during the regular season, held its own in rebounding. The Aggies had a 47-42 edge but Wright State 5-10 guard Symone Simmons had a game-high 13. Wright State was led in scoring by freshman guard Angel Baker who came off the bench to score 22, hitting 4 of 7 on 3-pointers.
Marquette 58, Rice 54
The Golden Eagles, playing in their third straight NCAA tournament, closed the game with a 15-2 run to end Rice’s 21-game winning streak.
“We’ve been saying all year, ‘you’re never out of the fight,’” Marquette coach Carolyn Kieger said. “And they stayed with it.”
Senior guard Armani Wilborn’s jumper gave Marquette a 54-52 lead 89 seconds into overtime, the Golden Eagles first lead since the first minute of the second half. Senior guard Allazia Blockton’s basket pushed the lead to 56-52 with 1:12 left after 21st-ranked Rice (28-4) missed three shots in the paint. The Golden Eagles were able to hold on against the cold-shooting Owls who missed 10 of 11 field goals with two turnovers in the final 7:53.
“There were things we could have executed better,” Rice junior guard Erica Ogwumike said. And we could have slowed the game down a little bit more at the end. I think I lot of things that we messed up were in our hands.”
Rice, making its first tournament appearance since 2005, had a solid all-around performance by 6-9 Nancy Mulkey who had 18 points, nine rebounds, five assists, five blocks and two steals, but she also missed her last five shots. Ogwumike added 22 points and eight rebounds but also had eight turnovers.
Marquette guard Natisha Hiedeman, the Big East player of the year, scored 13 points but made only 4 of 18 shots. The Golden Eagles overcame missing 19 of 23 3-pointers.
Blockton’s 3-pointer started Marquette’s comeback with 2:54 left after Ogwumike had hit a 3 to give Rice its largest lead. Rice led for almost 28 minutes.