Texas A&M picked the perfect women’s basketball game to allow alcohol sales because some fans probably needed something to get them through Thursday’s 57-54 loss to LSU at Reed Arena. It was a game A&M should have won but instead suffered a setback that could have lasting effects.
The loss does come with an asterisk because A&M played the last 23 minutes without All-American guard Chennedy Carter, yet that’s no excuse. A&M received passes last season for losing at home to Lamar when Carter was suspended for disciplinary reasons and when it lost to Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference tournament after Carter had surgery on the pinky finger of her shooting hand. But A&M gets no pass in this loss.
The Aggies were still the better team even without Carter, but instead of finding a way to win, they found a way to lose. A&M returns four other starters who reached the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 last season, but it performed like the team that missed the postseason last season instead of LSU. Without Carter, A&M made 7 of 27 field goals (25.9%) with six turnovers.
“For a minute it was, ‘Dang, she’s not coming back in,’ but we’ve got to finish the game,” A&M junior post Ciera Johnson said. “We’ve got to find a way to finish with Chennedy or without Chennedy.”
A&M struggled the most with the game on the line. The Aggies were outscored 7-2 in the final 6 minutes, 41 seconds, managing only two free throws by Kayla Wells. A&M missed its last seven field goals, often looking lost without Carter.
The 6-foot-4 Johnson and 6-2 power forward N’dea Jones were the reasons A&M led for 34:53. They combined for 30 points, hitting 10 of 21 field goals. They also had 22 rebounds, eight of them on the offensive end. If they put that effort on the court every time, the Aggies have a chance to reach the Final Four. They were warriors.
But when LSU went all out to stop A&M’s inside game, the Aggies had no answer on the perimeter. Senior point guard Shambria Washington, junior wing Wells and junior guard Aaliyah Wilson combined to make 2 of 21 field goals with four turnovers. If they play like that, the Aggies will have a tough time getting back to the Sweet 16.
A&M had a few officials’ calls go against them. Wells was called for a phantom foul when LSU’s Khalya Pointer tripped over her own feet. That allowed Jailin Cherry to hit a 14-foot jumper, and when A&M’s Aahliyah Jackson was called for a foul getting in position for a possible rebound, the mistake mushroomed into a 5-0 LSU run to close the third quarter when Awa Trasi hit a 3-pointer to pull LSU within 46-45.
In the fourth quarter, Wells was called for a charge while making a basket that would have pushed A&M’s lead to 54-50. Instead, Cherry answered with an eight-foot jumper to tie the game at 52 with 4:16 left. Jones later smoothly spun off the 5-8 Cherry to hit a jump shot with 27.1 seconds left, but Jones was called for a foul. So A&M still trailed by a point instead of leading by a point.
Let’s be clear: Officiating didn’t beat A&M. It was a tough game to call because of constant contact in the deliberate, grind-it-out approach. LSU coach Nikki Fargas probably thought Jones or Johnson should have been called for a few more push-offs. Yet LSU overcame A&M shooting 25 free throws. A&M couldn’t overcome its shortcomings in the kind of game you win at home. A&M’s faithful provided enough home-court advantage down the stretch, but the Aggies didn’t make enough plays, snapping a 13-game home winning streak.
The fallout from the loss included A&M projected to be a No. 4 seed for the NCAA tournament in the latest projections by ESPN’s Charlie Crème. A&M, picked to win the SEC by the coaches, had been a solid No. 3 seed.
The Aggies will have to atone for the LSU loss on the road. A&M’s final six home games are against teams picked to finish in the bottom half of the league — Florida, Missouri, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Auburn and Alabama. Those teams are a combined 6-12 in SEC play with their only victory coming against a team picked to finish in the top half being Missouri’s 69-65 win over LSU.
By beating A&M, LSU (12-3, 2-1) got a much-needed resume victory to offset that loss to Missouri, which has an RPI ranking of 168th. LSU evened its ledger in four days — it won’t be that easy for A&M.
LSU is 39th in RPI with quality wins over Michigan State, Florida Gulf and Rutgers. Crème also projects the Tigers as a seventh seed. But seventh seeds aren’t supposed to go on the road and beat third seeds who aspire to be two seeds, even if they are missing their best player. Maybe LSU will win at Mississippi State or South Carolina, but odds are those teams will protect the home court.
The challenge now for A&M is to win an extra game or two on the road. A&M has four games left against current ranked teams — No. 4 South Carolina, No. 13 Mississippi State, No. 14 Kentucky and No. 23 Tennessee. Last week, a split of those games along with A&M going unbeaten at home added up to a 14-2 record in SEC play, which certainly would put A&M in position to win the title and get a high seed for the NCAA tournament. And if the Aggies slipped up at LSU or Alabama, a 13-3 record still would match the program’s best since joining the SEC.
Now for the Aggies to finish 13-3 they have to win two of their four games against ranked teams with no slip-ups, or they have to win three of the four marquee matchups to allow for a slip-up.
A&M will have extra time to recover from LSU since it doesn’t play Sunday, returning to action with a biggie: at Kentucky on Thursday.
The general thought is it’s a long season, but when A&M tips off in Lexington, Kentucky, it’ll be nine weeks and a day until the NCAA tournament starts. The Aggies need to have a sense of urgency, something that wasn’t there Thursday night.
Fargas improved to 7-10 against A&M coach Gary Blair as LSU won at Reed Arena for the first time since 2013.
Fargas, along with Blair and Mississippi State’s Vic Schaefer, are the SEC’s top in-game coaches.
Fargas took a 30-second timeout after A&M took a 6-2 lead, sensing a repeat of the fiasco at Missouri when LSU fell behind 42-21. She told the troops no one would be shooting until they ran 15 seconds of clock each possession. She also opted to grind it out with the physical Aggies, keeping the pace slow. It seemed to favor A&M, which built an early eight-point lead and still led by as many as six in the third quarter even with Carter out, but the strategy paid off when LSU hit the clutch field goals late that made the difference.
A&M wasn’t the only top 10 team to falter Thursday.
No. 6 Baylor knocked off top-ranked Connecticut 74-58. That was a huge victory for the Lady Bears (12-1), almost cementing they’ll be the top seed in the Dallas Regional. And with the likelihood the NCAA would put the two in the same part of the bracket like it did in 2011, it’s important for A&M to climb up to a No. 2 or No. 3 seed to avoid playing Baylor in the Sweet 16. Yeah, you’ve got to play the best sometime, but doing it with the momentum of a Sweet 16 victory would be best.
Ninth-ranked North Carolina State suffered its first loss at unranked North Carolina. N.C. State coach Wes Moore, a good friend of Blair’s, opened the 2013 NCAA tournament at Reed Arena while at Chattanooga, losing 72-59 to Nebraska. He was hired at N.C. State after that.
Georgia Tech (12-3), which lost to A&M in Puerto Rico last month, won 67-52 at No. 11 Florida State (14-2).
“We got our butts kicked,” FSU coach Sue Semrau said. “Georgia Tech is a great defensive team, and we didn’t match it.”
First-year Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner, the former SEC Network host and one-time assistant to Blair at Stephen F. Austin, will be hard to knock out in the NCAA tournament.
Florida State, which handed A&M its first loss this season, lost last week at unranked Syracuse in overtime. No. 7 Louisville (15-1) is the only unbeaten team in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference with defending national champ Notre Dame 10-6, including 1-3 in league play to be tied for 10th with Miami, Clemson, Virginia and Duke.