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No. 2 Texas A&M women stay on path for a top seed in NCAAs



TX – A conference tournament, comparable to a semi-dysfunctional family reunion, is fun for participants and fans, but not completely necessary to the gist of the true postseason: the NCAA tournament.

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, whose No. 2 team likely already is one of the four top seeds in the NCAA postseason, is all for the league shindig, however, based on what games can contribute during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Why are we playing? Because the country needs us right now,” Blair said following the top-seeded Aggies’ 77-58 victory over eighth-seeded LSU in the SEC tournament quarterfinals on Friday in Greenville, S.C. “They need hope. They need box scores. And they need their televisions so they can second-guess us ‘poor’ coaches.”

He was joking on the last part, but there was little second-guessing needed of Blair and his staff following the Aggies’ second-half domination of their conference rival.

“(This) is a very talented Texas A&M team, obviously No. 1 in our league right now, and probably a No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament,” LSU coach Nikki Vargas said. “They showcased why they are.”

A&M (23-1) will face fourth-seeded and No. 16 Georgia (19-5) at 3 p.m. Saturday in the tournament semifinals. Five Aggies on Friday scored in double figures in a typically balanced offensive attack, with Kayla Wells leading the charge with 16 points. A&M’s Aaliyah Wilson grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds, and the Aggies overwhelmed the Tigers in points in the paint (40-14). LSU never threatened after halftime.

A&M had previously defeated No. 7 South Carolina 65-57 in the regular-season finale on Sunday in Reed Arena to win the SEC regular-season title over the Gamecocks.

“We celebrated and we were on our high horse (through) Monday,” A&M center Ciera Johnson said of the Aggies winning their first regular-season title since joining the league in 2012. “On Tuesday we got back to work and practice, because we realize we have to move on.”

There was one final score to settle, however, based on the regular season: LSU, which likely wrapped up its season at 9-13, was the lone team to beat the Aggies this season – 65-61 in overtime in Baton Rouge, La., on Jan. 14.

The Aggies have now beaten the Tigers twice since, including 54-41 in College Station on Feb. 4 — although neither team looked sharp in the first quarter on Friday, when they shot a combined 7-of-31 from the floor over the first 10 minutes.

“Thank heavens they were missing as many shots as we were,” Blair said.

The Tigers had defeated Mississippi State 71-62 on Thursday in the second round, as the Aggies sat and watched, to set up a rubber match between A&M and LSU.

“Upsets happen on Friday,” Blair said of Thursday winners building momentum and shaking rust entering the weekend and before the top four seeds take the floor. “It’s the best basketball in the country on Friday in the SEC, because all eight teams should be going to the (NCAA) tournament, and that includes LSU.

“We expected a letdown (after Sunday), but when you have a veteran team, we did not panic. We started dissecting them.”

A&M, too, dissected Georgia on Jan. 31 in Reed Arena. The Aggies prevailed by double digits (60-48) on a day they celebrated their national title under Blair from a decade ago. The Lady Bulldogs were one of three SEC foes the defensive-minded Aggies held under 50 points in the regular season.

“It’s going to be a battle of wills,” Georgia coach Joni Taylor said of Saturday’s semifinals showdown. “Gary Blair is an excellent coach, and Texas A&M is the SEC regular season champ for a reason. They’re tough in a lot of ways.”

The Aggies won the school’s lone national championship in basketball 10 years ago in Indianapolis, Ind., and this year’s NCAA tournament is being held in and around San Antonio because of the pandemic. A&M, winner of 11 consecutive games, is among the favorites to win another title.

“Everybody does a great job of accepting what the game plan is for that game, accepting that role and we go on from there,” Johnson said. “We’re not looking past any team, because we know this is a wide-open tournament, and a wide-open season.”