College Station, Texas – After a dominating season in which they lost only once, No. 3 Texas A&M erased any doubt Sunday as they beat No. 5 South Carolina, 65-57, to claim the first SEC regular-season title in program history.
Aaliyah Wilson lead four in double figures with 17 points, while N’dea Jones chipped in 16 points and 14 rebounds for the Aggies’ tenth straight victory. The effort capped off a season that began with what coach Gary Blair called underestimation, after the departure of top scorer and first-round WNBA draft pick Chennedy Carter.
“We had a great player…that everybody had to scheme for,” he said. “When this year started, nobody gave us enough credit as a team that you had to scheme for.”
Blair has called this season’s squad, 22-1 overall and 13-1 in the SEC, one of the most fun and cohesive that he has coached. He said that without one dominant player, they have played team basketball.
“We checked the egos at the door, every one of us, because of the competition we had to face,” he said.
Wilson, Jones, Kayla Wells and Ciera Johnson have all averaged double-figure scoring this year, with point guard Jordan Nixon and reserve guard Destiny Pitts close behind. A&M was tabbed to finish third in conference, and began the year ranked No. 13. They have beat nine ranked opponents in 23 games, including the deciding matchup against the Gamecocks.
“Everybody has something they’re good at, and can do,” Wilson said. “No team can cut our head off.”
South Carolina trailed by as many as 14 points in the fourth quarter of the season finale before they made a push and cut the lead to three, on an Aaliyah Boston three-pointer with three minutes to go. Wilson’s bucket at the 90 second mark gave the Aggies a 62-57 lead, and Wells made a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left to seal the win.
Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke each put up 15 points for the Gamecocks, who won both the regular-season and SEC Tournament titles last season. Coach Dawn Staley credited their opponents.
“I love our effort and I love our energy. We just ran out of gas and didn’t have enough in the tank today,” she said.
A&M moved up in the rankings slowly throughout the year, as they carved out win after win while carefully following COVID protocols. They did not have to suspend play or cancel games due to the pandemic, and when two opponents had to call off matchups, Blair filled the calendar with replacement teams to boost their resume. He noted that South Carolina did the same thing.
“We’ve been doing it with leadership – six seniors and five who are in grad school,” he said.
Though Blair, in his 18th season with the Aggies, won a National Championship in 2011 and an SEC Tournament in 2013, the regular-season title had eluded him.
“We really wanted this,” he said. “The (SEC) Tournament championship is great, but the body of work you have to do in the regular season is something.”
Wilson said athletes were careful to not think too far ahead, even as their momentum grew.
“It’s really easy to get caught up in what people have and have not done,” she said. “We watch each other every day and….we did a good job of reminding each other not to get complacent, and to take one day at a time.”
“We find a way. Sometimes it’s not pretty, but we find a way. We keep having each other’s backs.”
Blair considers the SEC Tournament, which begins Wednesday, a second season, and the NCAA Tournament, a third season. He said that with so many ranked teams in the conference, A&M will continue their one-day-at-a-time approach.
“We’re only as good as our next game,” he said. “We’re not good enough to look past anybody.”