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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Photo by Photo by Morgan Engel

Senior point guard Curtyce Knox leads the nation with 9.2 assists per game.

Texas A&M’s road to the Final Four in Dallas tips off this Saturday, as the Aggies head west to face Penn in the First Round of the Women’s NCAA Tournament at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles.

The Quakers (22-7) are the 12-seed in the Bridgeport Regional and qualified for the Big Dance by winning the Ivy League, earning an automatic bid.

A slower, smarter type of game

When first glancing at the matchup with Penn, A&M head coach Gary Blair called his friend Mike Neighbors, head coach at Washington, who faced the Quakers in the First Round of last year’s NCAA Tournament.

The Huskies advanced to the Final Four a season ago, but found themselves trailing the inferior Quakers after the first twenty minutes of tournament play. Blair said Neighbors told him the key to Penn’s success is quite simple.

“He just says they don’t beat themselves,” Blair said on Wednesday. “Typical Ivy League, they have to do the little things. You look at their assist-to-turnover ratio, it’s better than ours. They run a lot of motion, they share the ball, they’ll run some flex action, some back-door cuts, they’re very good on their secondary offense.”

On offense, the Quakers run a slow-paced attack, methodically passing around the defense to find an open basket.

“This team is going to share the ball,” Blair said. “They’re going to make five to six to seven passes on a possession whether we’re in zone or man and we’re going to have to adjust.”

Blair added that Penn’s style of offense is one the Aggies have yet to see this season.

“We haven’t played a team like that this year that’s going to take seven to eight passes and milk that shot clock down,” Blair said. “Then when they get the offensive rebound, instead of getting the put-back, they’re going to milk it again for a bit.”

Defensively, the Quakers are third in the nation in points allowed per game, surrendering just 51.7 points per contest to their opponents. The key to Penn’s low-scoring affairs on the defensive side may lie in its guard play.

“Their guards are very aggressive on the perimeter, they just keep their man in front of them,” senior point guard Curtyce Knox said. “They do a great job of holding their opponents to very low-scoring games.”

To counter the Quakers’ strong defense, Knox added that A&M has emphasized its transition game in preparation, as she believes the Aggies are a more athletic team and can use that to their advantage.

“We’ve been working on a lot of transition game in the last few days of practice,” Knox added. “We know that we’re more athletic than them, but they’re a very smart team, but I think we can run on them and get a lot of easy buckets in transition.

“If we use our athleticism and speed against them, I think we can get to the bucket a lot.”

A similar opponent for A&M, different task for Penn

Penn provides A&M with a peculiar matchup and senior guard Taylor Cooper said she believes the Quakers remind her of conference foe Missouri.

“They play hard, they play smart, and that’s kind of the team Missouri is,” Cooper said of Penn. “I think coming in, we just have to play our game and go with the game plan, follow the game plan and I think we’ll be fine.”

Blair echoed Cooper’s comments, stating Penn is similar to the Tigers as far as its ball movement on offense, but lacks an overwhelming scorer like Missouri’s Sophia Cunningham.

“They’re not going to beat their selves,” Blair added. “I’d say you’re looking at a Vanderbilt, Missouri type of team, somebody who’s going execute what they do very well.”

On the flip side, Blair believes the Quakers have yet to see a team like the Aggies with the nearest comparison being either Duke or Temple, the only two tournament teams Penn has faced this season – both games the Quakers lost.

“They have not seen anybody like us,” Blair said. “The closest example would be Temple, who’s an athletic team who’s going to the NCAA [Tournament] or their first game of the year against Duke, which they played at Duke and lost by thirteen. When you start looking at the Ivy League games, those games are a lot slower and a lot less athletic, but they’re precision and they play hard.”

Although Penn does not feature a guard like Cunningham, who dropped 36 points in the Tigers’ overtime win over the Aggies in January, the Quakers boast dynamic 6-foot-3 forward Michelle Nwokedi.

The Houston native leads the team in points and rebound per game, nearly averaging a double-double. Those kinds of stats are some the Blair recognizes as special.

“She’s an SEC-type of player playing in the Ivy League,” Blair said of Nwokedi. “She’s got great skills, she knows our system pretty well. I’m sure playing against a Texas team is going to be very important to her.”

One game at a time approach to advance, prevent an upset

While A&M’s big goal remains to get back to the Lone Star State the first weekend in April, the Aggies must first take care of business in the Golden State. A&M has been eliminated during the first weekend of tournament play the past two seasons, and Knox noted it is critical the team take a one-game-at-a -time approach to keep advancing.

“I think it is very important that we take it one game at a time and not look past this team because they are a very good team and a very smart team,” Knox said. “We need to do what we need to do in this game coming up to be able to play against the next team in the second round.”

The Aggies are no strangers to the Big Dance, reaching it for the 12th consecutive season, but Penn is seeking its first NCAA Tournament win in school-history – a dangerous statistic that Blair has used to hype up the Quakers to his team.

“They’re 0-4 in the NCAA [Tournament],” Blair noted. “They’re probably looking at us versus who they’ve played in the first four years and saying, ‘This might be our chance.’ But don’t worry, we’re building them up, they’re a top-ten team that we’re playing.”

Blair reminisced on his 1998 Final Four team at Arkansas, who defeated the Ivy League’s Harvard in the Second Round. The 16-seed Crimson, however, took down top-seeded Stanford two days before, the only time a 16-seed has beaten a 1-seed in men’s or women’s tournament history.

That memory is one Blair will share with his team, and also hopes there will be upsets on Friday to show his squad that mid-majors are capable of taking down teams like A&M, motivating the Aggies to prevent that from happening to them.

“I’m hoping there are some upsets on Friday night that I can use as a rallying cry and say, ‘See that, look at this mid-major beat a [Power Five] school,’” Blair said. “I need all that motivation to make sure it doesn’t happen to us.”

Fourteen days have passed since the Aggies played their last game on the hardwood, which has allowed A&M to regroup and recover from a grueling regular-season.

With fresh legs and minds, Blair concluded that A&M is traveling west to take care of business, not go on an average spring break vacation.

“We’ve played well in practice all week,” he said. “We gave them sufficient rest to blend in with academics last week and now we’re on spring break, we’re not going out there to go to Disneyland, but to win two ball games.”
Texas A&M and Penn are slated to tip-off from Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. CT. The winner will face the victor of UCLA-Boise State on Monday.

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