KANSAS CITY, MO -- After being the underdog for the first nine years of existence of the Big 12 Conference, the fourth-seeded and No. 11-ranked Texas A&M women’s basketball team continues to reach new heights with its first-ever appearance in the Big 12 championship game with a 65-53 semifinal victory over eighth-seeded Iowa State Thursday night at Municipal Auditorium.
The Aggies (25-7) have gone 2-0 at the postseason conference tournament with a 65-39 win over 12th-seeded Missouri in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. They have won 12 of their last 13 games of the season and are riding a conference-best eight-game winning streak. A&M became the first No. 4 seed in league history to advance to the championship game and claimed only its fifth all-time win in the tourney.
A&M started things off with intense pressure on Iowa State (20-12) which caused the Cyclones to be called for a five-second call. With the game becoming physical in the opening minutes of the game, a technical foul was called on Iowa State head coach Bill Fennelly at the 17:20 minute mark after a quick 5-0 run by the Aggies. Junior Danielle Gant (Oklahoma City, Okla.) converted both free throw attempts to keep the momentum going. Gant finished the night with 10 points and six rebounds.
Jocelyn Anderson hit Iowa State’s first basket with under 17 minutes to go in the half, but A&M’s defense caused six turnovers by the Cyclones in the first eight minutes of play which created several offensive opportunities. Senior A’Quonesia Franklin (Tyler, Texas) drained two big three-pointers to increase the lead to 10-2. Franklin played flawless at the point as the Aggies had zero miscues in their early first-half stretch. For the game, she turned in eight points along with five assists with no turnovers.
Senior Morenike Atunrase (Shreveport, La.) came off the bench and immediately drained a three-pointer with 14:05 remaining in the half to push the lead out to 17-4. She scored a game-high 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the floor and 4-of-6 makes from the charity stripe. A&M played Iowa State’s game from the perimeter going 6-of-16 in the contest. The Aggies who rank tops in the Big 12 in three-point field-goal percentage defense (26.2) held the hot-shooting Cyclones to just 23.1 percent from long range (6-of-26) after they went 44.1 percent for the tournament.
Fouls plagued both squad’s top go-to players with A&M’s Gant, Franklin, Atunrase, junior La Toya Micheaux (Missouri City, Texas) and senior Patrice Reado (Houston, Texas) with three or more fouls apiece. Iowa State was in the same position with Alison Lacey and Heather Ezell both called with four. Lacey led the Cyclones with a team-high 15 points.
A&M led by 12 points at halftime, 37-25. The Cyclones got within 10 points on back-to-back buckets by Anderson to start the second half on a 4-0 run. A three-pointer by Ezell at the 16:54 minute mark cut the lead to 39-32. The Cyclones went 11-of-15 from the free throw line in the second half to stay in the game. They would not get any closer as the Aggies prevailed with their fourth-ever win over the Cyclones in 17 tries. ISU never led in the ballgame.
The Aggies will face third-seeded Oklahoma State (25-6) in the Big 12 championship game on Saturday, March 15 at 6 p.m. The game will be televised nationally on Fox Sports Net. OSU and A&M have only met once in postseason play. The eighth-seeded Cowgirls defeated the ninth-seeded Aggies (92-76) in the first round of the 2002 Tournament in Kansas City.
Postgame Notes…For the 15th time this season, A&M used the starting lineup of A’Quonesia Franklin, Takia Starks, Danielle Gant, Patrice Reado and La Toya Micheaux (11-4)…Senior Morenike Atunrase came off the bench and scored 10 of her game-high 19 points in the first half of play and shot 7-of-11 from the floor for the game…It marked her third time to score in double figures in the last four contests…Her 19 points was two shy of her career-best in a Big 12 Tournament game (21 points versus Nebraska in the 2006 quarterfinals)…With the win, A&M matched its 25-7 overall record a year ago which tied for the second-most victories (25) in school history…The Aggies are one win away from tying a school-record for most wins in a season (26)…Franklin dished out five assists with zero turnovers to move into fifth all-time among Big 12 career assists leaders with 608 to date…She surpassed Oklahoma’s Dionnah Jackson (606) and joined former player Toccara Williams (724) on the elite list…A&M is now the only Big 12 school to have two players ranked among the top five all-time career leaders in assists in the conference record books…Franklin turned in her fifth game of the season with zero turnovers…The Aggies made six three-pointers versus the Cyclones which tied as the second-most this season in a single game…A&M shot 43.3 percent from the floor…Starks registered 15 points and has now scored in double figures in 30 of 31 games this season…The Aggies picked up only their fifth all-time Big 12 Tournament win and became the first No. 4 seed to advance to the championship game...They have now won two-straight in the all-time series with Iowa State and claimed only their fourth all-time win against the Cyclones in 17 tries.
TEXAS A&M HEAD COACH GARY BLAIR
On the game and coming out strong defensively against Iowa State …
“We wanted to press for 10 minutes and see where we were. We had a game plan early and we couldn’t have gone at that pace for 40 minutes. It didn’t matter what the score was, because this is a three-to four-day tournament. You hit and miss on the press. What you want to do is take Iowa State a little bit out of their offense. They can get very comfortable when they start running their double screens and flare screens like they did yesterday against Kansas State. That was one of the best basketball games I’ve seen this year, period, men or women. Both teams should be given a lot of credit, but there’s a lot of different ways to play the game. Defense can win for you. These kids are beautiful shooters, too, and they’re able to fit into Iowa State’s offense because they can shoot the ball off screens, too. What separates these kids and a lot of other kids is that we will play defense. Defense first, offense second and rebounds third. I’ve been playing for many years. I’m proud of our players and I’m proud of their effort. I’m also proud of Iowa State for how they came back in the second half and really the last three minutes of the first half. It could have been blown up to 20 points, but (Alison) Lacey did a heck of a job running her ball club. We shutdown (Heather) Ezell in the first half with a lot of help and a lot of good switching. But Ezell hit a couple in the second half. Lacey kept them in the ballgame and give that kid a lot of credit.”
TEXAS A&M JUNIOR GUARD TAKIA STARKS
On the team’s first-half run …
“We made our run, and in this tournament, it’s a game of runs. And in our league, it’s a game of runs, and we had ours and they made theirs. We just had to hold on to our lead as much as we could, and we knew they were going to hit shots and we had to come afterwards and make shots, too.”
TEXAS A&M SENIOR GUARD/FORWARD MORENIKE ATUNRASE
On the team’s advancement to the Big 12 Championship game …
“It’s important to us. This is a place we haven’t been in my four years here, so we’re excited to be there, but we have to be mentally prepared. Yesterday, we only had one day to prepare, a few hours and we did good. I think we were focused. I think it’s the same way we have to go into the championship game, whoever we face.”