When Gary Blair took over as coach at Texas A&M in 2003, he heard about an elementary school girl in town named Karla Gilbert whom he should keep on his radar.
A few years later he signed the 6-foot-5 Gilbert, but she spent the first three years of her career as a reserve, stuck behind stars Danielle Adams and Kelsey Bone.
This year has been a breakout season for Gilbert, and the senior leads the No. 3 seed Aggies against No. 14 seed North Dakota, which is making its tournament debut, in the NCAA first round on Sunday.
“She’s one of the most good-natured kids I’ve ever coached in my life,” Blair said of Gilbert. “She’s gotten better and better. We’ve been surprised this year at her stamina, how many minutes she can play.”
Gilbert, who is averaging 27.8 minutes per game, has started each game and is averaging 11.3 points and 7.4 rebounds, both career highs. She also set the school’s single-season record for blocked shots with 59 this season.
She is one of two players remaining from Texas A&M’s team that won the national title in 2011, and she doesn’t lack confidence in this group.
“I’m expecting us to dominate no matter what the situation,” Gilbert said. “Hopefully we’re able to show up like we’re supposed to.”
Texas A&M is making its ninth straight tournament appearance and is playing the opening round at home for the third consecutive year.
It’s a big test for a North Dakota team that won the Big Sky Conference tournament to become one of five women’s teams in the tournament for the first time. Coach Travis Brewster is proud of his players for making history by reaching the tournament but knows they aren’t satisfied with simply being here.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”
The winner will face either sixth-seeded Gonzaga or 11th-seeded James Madison in the second round on Tuesday night.