WBB column

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 24: Texas A&M University takes on Iowa State University during the second round of the 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament held at Alamodome on March 24, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos)

A decade after Texas A&M women’s basketball’s first and only national title, the Aggies fell short in 2021 despite their best regular season performance in program history.

But they may have given fans something better.

While the men’s basketball team struggled to overcome a series of positive COVID-19 cases facing seven cancellations this year, coach Gary Blair and the women’s team were the unsung heroes of the season.

And they battled through adversity to do it.

Eight days before the Aggies’ 2020-2021 season opener against Lamar, the SEC’s coaches picked A&M to finish third in the conference behind South Carolina and Kentucky. By the time the conference tournament rolled around, A&M had collected statement wins over both the Gamecocks and the Wildcats and wore the SEC regular season crown.

Once the Aggies got to tournament play, though, everything changed. With a six-point loss to Georgia in the second round of the SEC Tournament, A&M was unable to capitalize on its promising regular season and entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed.

A pair of close wins followed for the Aggies before their season came to a heartbreaking end with a 74-59 loss to Arizona in the Sweet 16. Prior to the loss, Blair said the Aggies’ best basketball was still ahead of them, and although they didn’t make good on that this season, that sentiment could still ring true.

The future remains bright for Texas A&M women’s basketball.

A&M knows it will be without seniors forward N’dea Jones and guard Aaliyah Wilson, who declared for the WNBA Draft on March 30 and 31, respectively. But as the Aggies showed this year, they have no trouble replacing key playmakers.

Heading into the 2020-2021 season, all eyes were on who would step up to replace three-time All-American guard Chennedy Carter, who exited the program early for the WNBA.

Sophomore guard Jordan Nixon answered the call when she catapulted the Aggies into the national spotlight with a game-winning buzzer beater against Iowa State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

However, Nixon is not the star of the A&M women’s basketball team. Yes, she has had clutch moments in games and received congratulations from the likes of Lebron James and Gabrielle Union following her heroic efforts to get A&M to the Sweet 16.

But what made the 2020-2021 squad special was its balance — the Aggies didn’t have a Chennedy Carter or an Aari McDonald on their roster.

There was no one player they relied on to get through tough situations like the close first and second round games in the NCAA Tournament — they all shared that responsibility. When one player was having a bad night, someone else stepped up and took her place. As Nixon, who has a team-high 91 assists in addition to her 297 points on the season, reiterated after her game-winning shot against Iowa State, they trusted each other, in a way few A&M teams before them had.

“We embody what it means to be a team,” Nixon said. “On any given night, any given person can do something really special, and I think you’ve seen that all season. Maybe it’s [Aaliyah] Wilson scoring 30, maybe it’s [Ciera Johnson] getting a double-double, maybe it’s [N’dea Jones], maybe it’s Kayla [Wells], maybe it’s [Destiny Pitts].”

Building that trust and chemistry was a feat in itself. COVID-19 disrupted the “normal” offseason process, keeping players away from the facilities until early June. Even when they were allowed back in, health and safety protocols disrupted the amount of time they could spend together and what they were allowed to do.

Through it all, this team pulled together when many others weren’t able to.

In the women’s basketball sphere, Vanderbilt’s program ended its season on Jan. 18 due to COVID-19, opt-outs and injuries.

Various A&M sports teams had several cancellations disrupt their seasons — from men’s basketball missing eight games due to COVID-19, to football last fall, women’s golf, men’s tennis, volleyball and more — but the Texas A&M women’s basketball program did not miss a single game due to COVID-19 protocol among its members. Blair called it “unbelievable.”

To me, that shows just how special this team was. Each player showed their dedication and commitment not only to each other, but to Blair and the rest of the coaching staff, to the support staff and the entirety of the program, to the fans, to the university and to the sport of basketball as a whole.

Texas A&M lives and dies on its Core Values: respect, excellence, leadership, loyalty, integrity and selfless service. Week in and week out, each of the 15 players on A&M women’s basketball’s roster exemplified what it means to be an Aggie, personifying the “spirit can ne’er be told.”

Gary Blair agrees.

“This year means more to me as a coach than any team I have ever coached because of what these young people have had to go through,” Blair said. “Winning the national championship was great, but that championship team did not have to go through what these young ladies and all the people in our country have had to go through [this year]. There will be a thousand books made on this. CNN, 60 Minutes. … But this team is beautiful. We had zero problems all year. That’s the character and the chemistry and who we bring into this program.”

Hannah Underwood is a journalism senior and sports editor for The Battalion.

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