In the aftermath of a record-setting rally, a one-word message remained on a whiteboard in the Texas A&M locker room following the Aggies’ double-overtime thriller over Northern Iowa that sealed a Sweet 16 berth against Oklahoma: Believe.
A familiar phrase throughout a breakthrough season, the Aggies acknowledge their belief system has emerged as arguably the biggest strength for a team that has set a school record for single-season victories and would clinch its deepest run in any NCAA men’s basketball tournament if A&M (28-8) can upend Oklahoma (27-7) in Thursday’s matchup in Anaheim, Calif.
That belief helped A&M erase a 12-point deficit with 35 seconds remaining in regulation Sunday in Oklahoma City, lighting the fuse for a 92-88 triumph over UNI that marked the largest final-minute deficit overcome by a Division I team. That comeback fortified the mindset that these Aggies, making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011, are destined for a special postseason that includes a trip to Houston for next week’s Final Four.
Coach Billy Kennedy set that goal for players in the preseason. Members of a senior-laden starting lineup will keep it close to heart, said guard Alex Caruso, as they seek to win the final two games in the West Region needed to reach Houston.
“We’re not ready to be done with our careers yet. That’s the biggest thing,” said Caruso, one of four senior starters who set the tone for a team that is the No. 3 seed in the West Region. “All year, whether we’ve been up 20 or down 10, we just stay in the moment and make a play. We’ve kept saying that and saying that. We’re just fortunate and blessed that the ball bounced our way a couple of times (against UNI).”
After Sunday’s latest round of evidence, A&M players are beginning to believe the ball is supposed to bounce in their favor. That mindset, said forward Jalen Jones, should help them against OU, the No. 2 seed in the West Region and the first opponent in A&M’s tournament run that has been seeded higher than the Aggies.
We’re not ready to be done with our careers yet. That’s the biggest thing.
Texas A&M guard Alex Caruso, one of the team’s four senior starters
“We were built for this,” Jones said. “Even when we were down and out and thought it was over, we kept telling ourselves, ‘Keep fighting until the end and make sure we don’t regret anything out there.’
“We never really get caught up in what the other team does. We just try to go out there and play the best basketball that we can.”
That tenacious mindset is a reflection of Kennedy, whose disciplined approach to his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease (diagnosed in 2011) rubs off on his players. He predicted an NCAA tournament berth for this team during the news conference following last year’s season-ending loss to Louisiana Tech in the 2015 NIT. During preseason practices, he made it a goal to play in the Final Four in Houston, a 90-mile journey from College Station.
We’ve talked about it from Day One. I want them to have that kind of vision and that kind of dream because I believe it’s possible.
Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy, on the team’s season-long goal of reaching the Final Four in Houston
“I want them to have that kind of vision and that kind of dream because I believe it’s possible,” he said.
With only one player on the roster who had previous NCAA tournament experience before last week (point guard Anthony Collins, a transfer from South Florida), the Aggies admitted they fought through some nervous moments and jitters during their two games in Oklahoma City. But those contests produced a pair of confidence-building victories over Green Bay (92-65) and UNI that boosted the team’s record to 10-1 over its last 11 games.
“We definitely have things we can improve on,” said freshman center Tyler Davis, who has averaged 11.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. “But we’re playing together and playing for each other. We’re trusting in the system. No one is playing selfishly. Guys have to keep playing for each other and doing the little things right. As long as we stick together out there, good things will happen.”
Topping the list would be the school’s first Final Four berth, a journey that would require a victory over Oklahoma followed by a Saturday triumph over the winner of Thursday’s matchup between No. 1 Oregon (30-6) and No. 4 Duke (25-10) in a West Region still loaded with pre-tournament favorites.
12 Point deficit erased by Texas A&M in the final 35 seconds of Sunday’s 92-88 victory over Northern Iowa, the largest-final minute comeback in Division I history.
Kennedy, in his fifth season at the school, said it’s rewarding to see the blueprint he laid down years ago yielding fruit in 2016.
“I think the culture that we’ve developed, it’s taken us a few years of recruiting the kind of kids that fit in at Texas A&M and that can play for me,” Kennedy said. “We’ve recruited the right kind of people. Thankfully, they can play, too.”
Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma
6:37 p.m. Thursday, KTVT/Ch. 11