The psyche of the Texas A&M women’s basketball team in three weeks without guard Chennedy Carter has gone from fragile to firm.
The hope was Carter might not miss a game when she suffered a Grade 2 ankle sprain late in the first half against LSU on Jan. 9, because A&M wouldn’t play for a week. Things, though, looked worse after a 76-54 loss at Kentucky. It was A&M’s first back-to-back losses since the start of Southeastern Conference play last season and Carter’s status wasn’t encouraging because she hadn’t even practiced.
Good news this week is Carter has returned to practice and she’ll be a game-time decision for Thursday night’s game against Georgia, but better news is the 15th-ranked Aggies (17-3, 5-2) have won three straight games without the league’s preseason player of the season. A&M has found a way to replace Carter’s team-leading 32.1 minutes per game at the time of the injury and they’ve come close to picking up her 22.5 points per game scoring average.
All the other starters have increased their minutes and scoring. They’ve also mentally handled the added responsibility.
“Also, it’s tougher defensively, because you just can’t replace 22 points unless you’re just playing a team that’s just a run-and-gun, up-and-down [team],” A&M head coach Gary Blair said. “And the SEC does not have too many of those. I think defensively, it puts more pressure on us. Mentally, it puts more pressure on us.”
Carter had made great strides on the defensive end this season. She’d cut down on fouls, averaging only 2.4 per game. She was averaging 1.9 steals per game and a career-best 4.9 rebounds. A&M was allowing only 55.3 points per game before she got hurt. That’s climbed to 61.3 in the last four games, while the Carter-less offense is averaging 68.5 points per game, down from 73.9 in the first 15 games.
“Has it been more physically draining on me?” Blair said. “No, it’s been mentally draining because now I have to put in new stuff to accentuate the strengths of these other kids.”
The other starters — senior point guard Shambria Washington, junior wing Kayla Wells, junior power forward N’dea Jones and junior post Ciera Johnson — have combined to average 14.4 more points per game than they did before Carter was injured.
“We see it as confidence is contagious, so if one member of our team is down, we have confidence in other people,” said Jones who has had eighth straight double-doubles and is averaging 15 points per game in the last four games. “We believe in our teammates. We all have each other’s backs. So physically, it feels the same. We still play around the same amount of minutes. Mentally, it’s just making sure everybody’s on the same page.”
A&M also had the luxury of a sixth starter in junior guard Aaliyah Wilson who started the first nine games last season before suffering a season-ending injury. Wilson in Carter’s absence has started the last four games, averaging 28.3 minutes. She had been averaging only 16.3 minutes. Blair also is running more plays for Wells and Wilson to complement Washington on the perimeter and he’s leaning more on the 6-foot-4 Johnson and 6-2 Jones who are one of the league’s best inside duos.
A&M, the preseason pick by the coaches to win the league, is tied with 13th-ranked Kentucky (16-3, 5-2) for fourth place, a game back of ninth-ranked Mississippi State (18-3, 6-1) and 22nd-ranked Tennessee (16-4, 6-1), teams the Aggies have yet to play.
“[Carter] is a special, special player,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said after Sunday’s 72-53 loss to the Aggies. “So for the others to step up when she’s out, is just a testament to the quality of players [Blair] has in this program. They’re a Top 25 [team] for a reason. It’s not a one-person show. It’s a team accomplishment.”
A&M has had the luxury during its three-game winning streak of playing teams among the league’s bottom six. But after playing Georgia (12-8, 3-4) the Aggies will be at LSU (14-5, 4-3) on Sunday and then at Mississippi State on Feb. 9.
NOTES — Blair said he wouldn’t elaborate on what Carter has done at practice. … A&M leads the Georgia series 6-3, including last year’s 76-66 victory. Georgia guard Gabby Connally, who played at San Antonio Bandeis, scored 37 points two years ago in a 92-84 overtime victory. … Georgia had been 0-4 against ranked teams until a 64-55 victory at No. 20 Arkansas last Thursday. The Bulldogs are coming off an 88-53 loss to top-ranked South Carolina. … Georgia lost nonconference games to Georgia Tech (73-40), Villanova (63-58), Baylor (72-38) and UCLA (59-50). All those games were at home except Baylor. … A&M beat Georgia Tech 60-48 in Puerto Rico on Dec. 20. … A&M’s Jones is from Lawrenceville, Georgia, which is about 50 miles from the Georgia campus. “Georgia did recruit me,” said Jones, adding that former Georgia legendary head coach Andy Landers “was her guy. But, I think this will be a very fun game. I always enjoy playing my home team and winning. … This is A&M’s Daddy Daughter Night. The $12 deal includes tickets for dad and daughter and a $12 concessions voucher. Additional tickets for family members are $3. You can also bring your son if you don’t have a daughter.