With the game tied at 82 and under a minute remaining in an overtime period against seven-seed Iowa State, Texas A&M women’s basketball coach Gary Blair had options.
The Aggies needed a stop, and with his team in foul trouble, Blair looked to not only his most experienced players, but his newcomers as well.
As the seconds ticked away, Iowa State drove to the basket but was met with pressure. With senior guard Aaliyah Wilson in the way, Iowa State’s Ashley Joens looked to the left for her game-winner but senior center Ciera Johnson was there to block the shot.
A&M sophomore guard Jordan Nixon grabbed the free ball and Blair had a choice to make; he had one timeout remaining, which would have stopped the clock with three seconds left.
Instead, he let Nixon take her shot.
“One of the few things we were consistent on was fast break points,” Blair said. “You don’t want the master on defense over there, Bill Fennelly, setting something up. I wanted to go with the flow and the emotion and I have complete trust in my seniors who were in the ball game and us making the right decision to either shoot or not.”
Blair’s call ended up being the right one as Nixon hit her third game-winning shot of the season as time expired.
Following its narrow escape from Iowa State’s Round of 32 upset bid, A&M will face No. 11 Arizona in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 round.
Unlike the Aggies, 3-seed Arizona’s first two rounds of tournament play have seen a little less nail-biting with a 35-point win over Stony Brook and 6-point win over BYU under their belts. With an average win margin of just three points in its first two games, A&M has been paced by Nixon’s game- and career-high performances.
“We’re selfless people off the court so on the court it’s never a question of whether or not we’re going to move the ball or feed the hot hand,” Nixon said of her teammates. “These last two games, my teammates have put me in positions to thrive.”
The Wildcats, who are heading into their first Sweet 16 appearance since the 1997-1998 season, have been led this season by senior guard Aari McDonald, the Pac-12 Player and Defensive Player of the Year.
McDonald averages 19.3 points per game and week-by-week is raising Arizona’s program record for points in a single season.
“Make no mistake with Aari McDonald, I don’t think there’s any shutting her down,” Nixon said. “She’s a great player, and the most you can hope is that you slow her down, limit her effectiveness and make her uncomfortable.”
Despite the short turnaround between the Aggies’ 84-82 win in overtime against Iowa State and their upcoming matchup against three-seed Arizona, Nixon said her team will prioritize watching film on its next opponent.
“Preparation is never an area where we lack,” Nixon said. “Our coaching staff does an amazing job of making sure we are well-equipped to go into battle. We’re going to watch some film, we’re going to get more acquainted with Arizona, just as I’m sure they’re doing with us. But we’re no stranger to quick turnarounds and we’re going to show up on Saturday.”
Though A&M has had to fight to the end in both of its games this tournament, Blair said the battle is far from over.
“We’re supposed to be a 2-seed, almost a 1-seed, we won the SEC conference and both teams, Troy and Iowa State, have played us to the last possession,” Blair said. “Is that because they have played so well or because we underplayed? I think it’s just March, and you give credit to your opponent for their scheme and their game plan against us. We have played well at times in both ball games. We’ve made some mistakes, but sometimes you have to win games like we’ve won, like we have all year. But we haven’t won a thing.”
No. 2 seed A&M will take on No. 3 seed Arizona in the Sweet 16 at 7 p.m. on Saturday, and the game will be streamed on ESPN2.
“I’m just proud to be here, I’m proud to be in San Antone, my home state, and this is a happy town and we want to stay here for as long as we can,” Blair said. “Our best basketball is in front of us.”