Sunday, March 24, 2019

Aggie Women’s Basketball Team Refuses to Quit in Quest for Sweet 16 Spot

You know that point in the game where you have tried to coach, along with the head coach, what might happen yet to get from a tie game to a championship win? Today, I was dead wrong because I didn’t think there was any way that the natural go-to shooter, Shambria Washington, would have the adrenaline left in her system to find the position and take the shot she did. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong in recent memory. The final score was 78 to 76, Aggies over Marquette, but yet another big victory beyond that was the Aggie WBB team gelling to smooth operating efficiency in the most important game of their season (thus far).

After playing the entire game without a break, just one minute previously, we all saw Sham moving in a labored, exhaustive fashion up and down the court, having played the game of her life already. Marquette was all about expecting Chennedy Carter to go for the money shot, which was all Sham needed to show opponents not to ever put her into the offense equation. She made her third 3-pointer of four attempts to give the Aggies the lead they needed to claim the trip to Chicago that was on the line.

Three hours ago I just stood and stared blankly at the slowly clearing floor of Reed Arena after today’s crowd of 2767 basketball fans. Never in my (mumbles something) years of attending Texas A&M women’s basketball games have I ever witnessed such an exciting, breathtaking and exhausting competition between two really good teams as today. No. 5 seed Marquette had played hard Friday afternoon, March 22, in a surprising defeat of the Rice Owls that, frankly, I didn’t see coming. I had Coach Tina Langley’s team in my bracket to face the Aggies today as I’d been paying attention to Rice’s progress all season, and I also follow Coach Brenda Frese’s Maryland Terrapins team.

Just as exciting as this team’s victory was that it was, truly, for the first time this season, in this writer’s opinion, that the Aggies played like a team that had truly gelled, that finally had all five players focused on team. For 40 minutes, Chennedy Carter, Shambria Washington, Ciera Johnson and N’dea Jones played every minute of the game; Jada Walton substituted for Kayla Wells for one minute and then Kayla came back in with Blair’s info to share. Caylinne Martin came in on a free throw shot to stand guard and rebound. So, for 99% of the game, these five young women guaranteed several outcomes for the appreciative audience who, frankly, didn’t know what to expect.

It used to be a slogan for Aggie men’s basketball, slapped on a t-shirt: “Play smart, play together.” And, for most of this season, the Aggie women have played smart, when it came to what was best for them. Individual records were set and every single week of the season, we'd see a press release of yet another regional or national award that Chennedy Carter had become eligible, or stayed in the running. Each week I ignored them, because what I was seeing on the court, in my highly overly opinionated view, was a team that was fractured between trying to win and making sure the star remained the star for the stat books and records.

Understandably, when other players are not having their best games and are committing errors, at some point in the game, you just have to let whoever is hot and can make the shots take and/or make the shots. But it was very disappointing after one particular game. Kayla Wells had just made the game high score, might have been career high, but no matter. She shot lights out and basically saved our necks to win that game. She was ushered over to talk to the SEC hosts on camera, and the first question Nell Fortner asked her was, “Kayla you played great tonight. Let me ask you, ‘What’s it like to play with Chennedy Carter’?” Nell, NO! to purloin her own catch phrase.

There’s been no greater advocate and friend of Chennedy Carter since last year than Kayla Wells. Journalists and viewers alike saw Kayla’s huge smile fall and she recovered quickly and spoke so highly of her dear friend and teammate. It’s the 2019 version of “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” out there from some journalists, but each of our players deserves their time in the spotlight. Coach Blair corrected that tonight in a major way.

As he needed both hands to hold the microphone, filled with emotion and holding back tears, Blair thanked everyone for their attendance and support of this team, this school, and this sport. He lauded Marquette and said, honestly, that he wasn’t sure who was the better team tonight and that they had fought hard. Blair asked the audience to consider “How about Sham Washington?” and the Jumbotron showed Sham next to Chennedy Carter, each of them dealing with ESPN and other TV journalists on the sidelines. Both young women were smiling, but definitely gratefully sitting down on comfortable chairs because if you’d have asked either of them to stand another moment, surely they could not have.

They were both in overdrive or overload but total exhaustion was the outcome, exhilarated though they were. The score was 70-70 with 4:10 left, part of 11 times the score was tied and 9 lead changes during the game. The audience wanted to collapse, to be sure, but we were between exhilaration and exhaustion. It would be just like that, and more, for the next four minutes for team and the audience to reach the final destination.

Next, Blair asked team captain Ciera Johnson to address the crowd. Showing her leadership and composure, Ciera was gracious, welcoming and showed the poise of a senior, even though she’s not. The final and best “play of the day” came in the post-game press conference. Journalists gathered to ask the individual players about the game, with Coach Blair holding up Shambria’s 3-point shot with 0:22 left in the game as the turning point, as it was.

In her individual remarks, Chennedy Carter was truly gracious, sharing, complimentary of all of her teammates and spoke of them proudly. She knew they had her back and she had theirs. How refreshing that was to see and hear.

When it was Sham’s turn at the mike, one of the journalists asked her (paraphrasing) “How does it feel tonight to have done well when most of the time you play in the shadow of Chennedy Carter?” And Sham just smiled quietly, and said, “I don’t mind being in Chennedy’s shadow,” and more to the effect of “we all play on this team together.” Further, she spoke highly of how Chennedy was an amazing guard on defense tonight and how an early assignment of hers was to guard Chennedy during practice, so it prepared her well for the SEC players and today’s as well.

Chennedy quickly jumped right in with “Sham is NOT playing in my shadow,” noting that she’s got her own play and she’s outstanding and you couldn’t ask for better. Never was I prouder of Chennedy Carter than that remark. First, last and always, these Aggies are a team, for a season and for life. It’s hard to bring together people from all over Texas much less all over the United States and ask for personalities, work styles, and dedication to excellence to all gel in the same fixed set of airspace on a basketball court. You can look to Bob Starkey on defense, Kelly Bond-White on offense, and Amy Wright on point guard play to shine some light where it belongs, along with Gary Blair for keeping the entire battalion marching forward all night long.

Perhaps what more journalists can do to help teams come together is to find a way to focus on all the players on the court, whether their statistics give them cause to be lifted up or not. Unsung heroes are the backbone of this team all day every day, and this includes the unseen practice squad who puts our team through their paces to give them new challenges each day. Even though Caylinne Martin played one play and Jada Walton played for one minute tonight, they were not only ready to come in when needed, they were tearing up the bench standing, cheering, and encouraging their teammates on, and few people ever spot that and lift them up for it.

The dynamic duo of N'dea Jones and Ciera Johnson combined for 25 rebounds and 24 points between them. Every Aggie scored in double figures and each player had assists in this game, more evidence of true team play. Chennedy Carter finished with 30 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 block and 1 steal, Shambria Washington had 13 points, 6 assists, and 1 rebound. Kayla Wells had a key 3-pointer among her 11 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 assist. N'dea Jones had 13 points, 3 assists, 1 block, and 13 rebounds, while Ciera Johnson had 11 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 block.

Hats off to Marquette, who played 8 players with only one, the legend in her own right, Natisha Hiedeman, playing all 40 minutes, for which she garnered 18 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, and was a major force in what has to be Marquette's best game of the season. They were well coached, well prepared, and they had a great band, cheerleaders and fan base in attendance, given the distance between schools.

Tomorrow night we’ll find out whether the Aggies face Notre Dame or Michigan State this weekend in Chicago. One thing is for certain: the team riding the charter up north will indeed be the best possible compilation of quality players who are united for a purpose. Reaching the Sweet Sixteen status is something they get to do all day tomorrow between classes, because Coach Blair is giving them the day off, which it will take for them to rest each sore, tired, and hobbled muscle left in their bodies.

Their spirits and hearts are all fresh and ready to go, though, because of true team play. When one wins, they all win, and thus, there’s not the giant hoopla made about this achievement as they deserve, one of these days Texas A&M will be considered a “basketball school” and Aggie women’s basketball will have been the driving force behind that distinction.

As Coach Blair said tonight, if the opponent is Notre Dame, they could have as many as 8,000-9,000 fans on “their side.” May Aggies everywhere and anywhere near Chicagoland get over to Wintrust Arena at McCormick Square. It’s where DePaul plays their home games and they have 10,387 seats available to sit. If you can, let your maroon flag fly high. Best of luck to our truly fightin’ Texas A&M Women’s Basketball team.