Sports

Hope springs eternal for Texas A&M men after win over Oklahoma Sooners

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Texas A&M's long, bumpy ride in its first season under men's basketball coach Billy Kennedy received a 24-hour extension Wednesday night in the Sprint Center.

The Aggies' reward for breaking a five-game losing streak with a 62-53 victory over Oklahoma is today's matinee matchup against No. 3 Kansas in the second round of the Big 12 Tournament (2 p.m., ESPN2).

That will give A&M (14-17) one final opportunity to measure itself against the Jayhawks (25-6), the league's regular-season champions and the team that shared co-favorite status with A&M in the Big 12 title race in October.

Ever since, the teams have been going in opposite directions. Kansas met its preseason expectations. Even with Wednesday's victory over Oklahoma (15-16), the Aggies are only 2-9 in their last 11 games.

Yes, extenuating circumstances have contributed to A&M's struggles. Lots of them. But the bottom line shows A&M has yet to defeat a league opponent with a winning record and must win the Big 12 tournament to extend its season past Saturday.

Yet hope sprung eternal Wednesday night in the A&M locker room because the Aggies played two close games against KU during the regular season: a 64-54 loss in Lawrence, Kan., in which A&M led at halftime, as well as a 66-58 setback in College Station that was a four-point contest in the final minute.

"We have played Kansas close for both games. And we feel like we can beat them," said guard Elston Turner, who scored 14 points against OU.

"We think that the third time's the charm," said point guard Dash Harris, one of two seniors in the Aggies' starting lineup. "We know how bad we need this game. In order to keep our season alive, we have to win four games [in Kansas City]. This is not where we want it to end."

But the odds sure look tipped in that direction. Kansas seeks a solid showing in this week's Big 12 tournament to solidify a No. 1 seed in next week's NCAA Tournament. That means at least one win in Kansas City.

It also means that, if the Jayhawks are to be caught napping in the conference tournament, it is not likely to occur today against an opponent with a losing record that could wreak havoc with the Jayhawks' eventual NCAA seed.

Without question, the Aggies' talent level was overstated even before the rash of injuries. Kennedy acknowledged that Monday, saying he knew "early on" that this team would struggle to score enough point to meet its preseason Top 25 expectations.

But A&M led the Big 12 in scoring defense during the regular season (61.1 avg.). The Aggies held Oklahoma to 39.1 percent shooting Wednesday. After ranking dead last among Big 12 teams in free-throw percentage during the regular season (64.5 percent), the Aggies hit 15 of 16 (93.8 percent) in the second half to protect and extend a two-point lead over the final four minutes.

Could a continued stretch of stifling defense and timely free throws carry the Aggies to a stunning run through the Big 12 tourney? Harris, whose 3-pointer with 4:04 remaining triggered a decisive 10-2 run against OU, does not rule it out.

Harris said the struggles A&M has experienced in dealing with Kennedy's health (a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease in October) and an injury-riddled lineup has helped bond players for this week.

"Experiencing what we have this season, we don't take any game for granted," Harris said. "We know that every game, we have to go out there and give it our full effort... We're not done."

Until Wednesday, all recent evidence had been to the contrary. A&M's halftime lead against the Sooners was the team's first since Feb. 6. Outside of a Feb. 14 victory over last place Texas Tech, Wednesday's win was A&M's first since Jan. 28.

Kennedy talked this week about the difficulty in getting players to buy into changes he initiated after taking over a 24-9 team in May.

"I didn't expect it to be a rebuilding year. But once I got here, I knew we'd have some difficulties," Kennedy said.

A victory today over Kansas won't erase those difficulties. But it would earn the Aggies another 24-hour extension in an otherwise disappointing season.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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