Los Angeles – For the first three quarters of Saturday’s NCAA Tournament opener, 12th-seeded Penn dominated fifth-seed Texas A&M. They out shot them, 50 to 27 percent, played with urgency and carried the momentum over an Aggie squad that sometimes looked lethargic.
But in the fourth quarter, the Aggies woke up and turned the 52-35 deficit they went in with into a 63-61 win – the largest comeback in NCAA Tournament history.
Khaalia Hillsman paced Texas A&M with a career-high 27 points and nine rebounds, while Danni Williams added 15 points, which included a clutch three-point shot with 36.2 seconds to go that gave the Aggies the momentum to close out the game.
They began their 25-1 run with 8:57 to play, keeping the Quakers from scoring a field goal. The Williams shot cut Penn’s lead to 59-58, and an ensuing Hillsman bucket gave Texas A&M their first lead since the 19.1 seconds in the first quarter. Jasmine Lumpkin then stole the ball, which resulted in two Williams free throws.
Anriel Howard had 16 rebounds for the Aggies, and Curtyce Knox’s eight assists made her the first player in both school and Southeastern Conference history to score more than 300 assists in a single season, with 303.
Sydney Stipanovich led the Quakers with 20 points, and Michelle Nwokedi added 15.
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said the game hinged on momentum.
“Three quarters of the game, they outplayed us, I got out-coached, they wanted it more, they were cutting hard to the ball, they were making shots, you name it,” he said. “They probably deserved the game. But when you’re in the NCAA Tournament, you have to win a game like this along the way, to be able to get to that next level, to get that sense of urgency in your team.”
Blair said stops and starts have been the hallmark of what he termed a “reloading” season.
“We’ve had this problem all year, getting way behind, trying to run the perfect play instead of knowing how to play – and particularly on the defensive end,” he said. “They shut us out of our zone, our match up. We were doing a lousy job on switching, hedging and everything.”
“And give credit to them. That’s why they’re Penn. That’s why they’re so well-coached, and that is one of the best teams we have played this year, but when the momentum changes, and we were able to play defense without fouling in that fourth quarter and we made all the hustle plays.”
Hillsman, who scored 15 of her points in the final quarter, said that even she was struggling in the game.
“To be honest, in the fourth quarter, I was really just trying to have some pride in what we do,” Hillsman said. “We weren’t representing our school very well for about 30 minutes and then the last 10, we found something in us.”
That “something” was saving the game for Knox and fellow senior Taylor Cooper.
“I was trying to leave it all on the floor because I didn’t want ‘Tyce to go home. I wasn’t going to go home either,” Hillsman said.
“We talk a lot about ‘Tyce, but I don’t know if anybody really understands how much ‘Tyce means to us, so when we see her, when we see it in her eyes, like she doesn’t want to go home, that ignites all of us. We’re like, ‘’Tyce doesn’t want to go home, we aren’t going home.’ I mean ‘Tyce just means so much to us, and [Taylor Cooper]…..when we see our seniors like that, when they got that fire in their eyes, you see all that they’ve given to this program – how can we not go out there and give them everything we have? Because we don’t want them to go home; we don’t want their careers to end like that.”
Stipanovich credited the Aggies defensive intensity in the last period.
“I think in the first half we had a really good flowing offense, we were getting stops on defense, and we were making great transitions in the offensive end,” she said. “In the second half we have to give them credit, they upped their defense especially in the last eight minutes. The defense just got us.”
Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said it was one of the hardest losses he’d ever experienced.
“It is just a real difficult time right now,” McLaughlin said.
Texas A&M will face UCLA in the Tournament second round Monday at 7 p.m.