The March Madness learning curve lasted longer for Texas A&M’s newcomers to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament than coach Billy Kennedy would have preferred Friday night in Chesapeake Energy Arena.
And with these Aggies, we’re talking about a fresh experience for every player who took the floor with one exception: point guard Anthony Collins, who got his lone taste of the Big Dance in 2012 at South Florida.
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Fortunately for Kennedy, his guys needed only about 15 minutes of game action, rather than the full 40 minutes, to figure out the nuances of Green Bay’s pressure defense. After carving out a quick deficit, the Aggies began finding holes in the Phoenix’s press late in the first half and rolled to a 92-65 victory as the No. 3 seed in the West Region.
“Once we settled down and played the way we were capable of playing, we did a good job,” Kennedy said. “Green Bay did some different things that we’re not used to seeing. But our leadership and our older guys really settled down. I thought that was big.”
We’ve got a good team. We expected to come here and win games. We know how hard it is to win games because this tournament’s about matchups. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night if the matchup’s the right way.
A&M coach Billy Kennedy
It took some adjustments, particularly by an offense that saddled itself with 12 first-half turnovers. But the early eight-point deficit eventually disappeared, giving way to a narrow lead and, finally, some semblance of control by halftime as the Aggies (27-8) began dominating the boards and having their way in the paint on offense.
Freshman center Tyler Davis (12 points, 7 rebounds) and guard Danuel House (team-high 20 points) handled most of the heavy lifting on offense, helping A&M embark on a game-changing 27-11 run over the final 10:49 of the first half.
The momentum rarely wavered in the second half, when the Aggies were able to extend a 41-33 lead and put themselves in position for a potential Sunday showdown against Texas, the No. 6 seed in the West. The Longhorns played Northern Iowa in Friday’s late game.
A&M did its part to set up a Lone Star Showdown between the longtime rivals for the first time in NCAA Tournament play by using its size advantage to the maximum against Green Bay (23-13) after its initial slow start. The Aggies won the battle of the boards in decisive fashion 45-25, including a 22-10 edge in the second half. A&M outscored Green Bay 46-20 in the paint.
With five double-digit scorers, A&M coasted down the stretch to its first NCAA triumph since the 2010 season in the school’s first trip to the Big Dance since 2011. All in all, Kennedy liked everything he saw after the slow start. Mostly, he liked the fact that A&M did not join a lengthy list of first-round favorites to fall against double-digit seeds in their NCAA openers.
A quick cross-section: No. 2 Michigan State. No. 3 West Virginia, No. 4 California, No. 5 Baylor, No. 5 Purdue, No. 6 Arizona and No. 6 Seton Hall have all been bounced from March Madness before their second games. No. 3 A&M, on the other hand, plays again Sunday.
For House, the issue is about earning more respect at the national level for an A&M program that shared this year’s SEC title with Kentucky. He stressed Friday that the best is yet to come.
A&M is a heck of a team. I think they’re good enough to make a run at it.
Green Bay coach Linc Darner on the Aggies’ national title chances.
“There is still more respect to be earned,” House said. “We know you’ve got to play hard for 40 minutes [to get it]. That’s what we did.”
With their 56.1 percent shooting performance from the field (32-of-57), combined with their inside dominance, the Aggies clearly earned the respect of Green Bay coach Linc Darner.
“A&M is a heck of a team. I think they’re good enough to make a run at it,” Darner said, reflecting on the Aggies’ national title chances. “The first 10 or 12 minutes, we gave them some problems. But in the second half, they just got on a roll that we couldn’t stop. We had a tough, tough time guarding them down low.”
Much of the dominance came from the Aggies’ bench. Reserves Tonny Trocha-Morelos (15 points, six rebounds), D.J. Hogg (nine points, seven rebounds), Admon Gilder (11 points, two rebounds) and Tavario Miller (four points, five rebounds) made their presence felt while playing 10 or more minutes. The result was Kennedy’s first NCAA triumph as a coach since he led Murray State past Vanderbilt 66-65 in the first round of the 2010 tournament.
The issue for Kennedy, at this point, is making sure the Aggies take the next step toward a possible Final Four berth in Houston. And a couple more after that.
“We’ve got a good team. We expected to come here and win games,” Kennedy said. “We know how hard it is to win games because this tournament’s about matchups. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night if the matchup’s the right way.”
Consider Friday’s opening matchup very friendly for A&M. At least after the first 15 minutes.
GREEN BAY (23-13) — Small 6-10 5-6 22, Fouse 3-11 3-6 9, Love 1-5 0-3 3, Cooper 1-5 1-2 3, Lowe 1-3 0-0 2, Kanter 1-6 2-2 5, Botz 0-3 3-4 3, Av. Brown 1-2 0-0 3, An. Brown 0-0 0-0 0, Hurdle 5-7 0-0 11, Findlay 2-4 0-0 4, Uwadiae 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-56 14-23 65.
TEXAS A&M (27-8) — A. Collins 1-1 0-0 2, Jones 3-6 4-6 11, Caruso 1-3 1-2 3, House 8-12 2-2 20, Davis 4-5 4-7 12, Eubanks 1-2 0-0 3, Hogg 3-8 2-2 9, Gilder 3-5 4-4 11, Trocha-Morelos 6-11 2-3 15, Aparicio 0-0 0-0 0, Dobbins 1-1 0-0 2, Miller 1-3 2-2 4. Totals 32-57 21-28 92.
Halftime—Texas A&M 41-33. 3-Point Goals—Green Bay 9-27 (Small 5-6, Hurdle 1-2, Av. Brown 1-2, Love 1-4, Kanter 1-4, Findlay 0-1, Cooper 0-1, Botz 0-2, Fouse 0-5), Texas A&M 7-19 (House 2-3, Jones 1-1, Eubanks 1-2, Gilder 1-3, Trocha-Morelos 1-4, Hogg 1-5, Caruso 0-1). Fouled Out—Hurdle. Rebounds—Green Bay 25 (Fouse 6), Texas A&M 45 (Davis, Hogg 7). Assists—Green Bay 14 (Love 6), Texas A&M 17 (Caruso, Trocha-Morelos 4). Total Fouls—Green Bay 23, Texas A&M 19. A—NA.