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The Battalion

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End of the road

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Photo by Ishika Samant

Senior G Tyrece Radford (23) walks out of the game for the last time during a game vs. Alabama on March 12, 2023 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville Tennessee.

For the first time since 2018, Texas A&M men’s basketball was in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed. The Aggies were matched up against No. 10 seed Penn State on Thursday, March 16, in the Round of 64, with the winner facing No. 2 seed Texas in the next round.
The Nittany Lions entered the matchup playing their best stretch of basketball of the season. In its conference tournament, Penn State made it all the way to the Big Ten tournament final before losing in a close game to No. 3 Purdue. The Nittany Lions were led by do-it-all senior guard Jalen Pickett.
The Aggies were coming off a blowout SEC Championship loss at the hands of Alabama. For A&M, its matchup against Penn State was a perfect opportunity to bounce back from its loss to Alabama and potentially make an NCAA tournament run.
To start off the game, both of A&M’s first two baskets came on hook shots from junior forward Julius Marble. It looked as if the Aggies were looking to attack the interior of the Nittany Lions’ defense. As expected, Penn State’s offense was running through post ups from Pickett. The maroon and white were throwing different defenders on Pickett to give him contrasting looks.
A LeBron James-esque chasedown block from graduate guard Dexter Dennis led to a go-ahead 3-pointer from senior guard Tyrece Radford to give the Aggies a 7-5 lead. The first part of the game was characterized by sloppy play, with both teams committing multiple turnovers.
In the proceeding minutes, both teams traded the lead. A 3-point play from sophomore guard Wade Taylor IV gave A&M a 12-10 lead over Penn State with just over 13 minutes remaining.
The Aggies, while not being efficient on offense, hadwere having success getting second chance possessions from offensive rebounds. The issue was the extra possessions were not leading to points.
On defense, A&M continued to put different players on Pickett to try to slow him down on offense. Presumably, the best bet to stop Pickett would be to put the similarly-sized Dennis on him, but they had only matched up on a couple of possessions halfway through the first half.
The Aggies stalled on offense, scoring zero points over the course of about five minutes. During this time, the Nittany Lions built a 18-12 lead. The maroon and white’s drought ended following a 3-pointer from junior guard Hayden Hefner. Nerves continued to plague A&M on offense, as most of its turnovers were coming from dropping passes.
Senior guard Andrew Funk’s third 3-pointer increased the Nittany Lions’ lead to 24-15 with six minutes remaining in the first half. Thus far, Funk was Penn State’s leading scorer with 12 points, with all of his points coming from 3-pointers or free throws.
Pickett was continuing to feast on posting up A&M’s smaller guards. To get Pickett the ball, Penn State was using screens to get advantageous switches onto the talented guard. The Nittany Lions led 31-20 over the Aggies with just over two minutes remaining in the first half. The maroon and white continued to get outplayed on both sides of the ball, as another 3-ball from Funk extended Penn State’s lead to 34-20.
Heading into halftime, the Aggies trailed the Nittany Lions 38-22.
Statistically, the maroon and white had a difficult first half. Marble was A&M’s leading scorer with 8 points. Other than Marble post/faceups, not much worked offensively for the Aggies. A&M was shooting under 35% from both the field and 3-point line. The Nittany Lions also did a great job of limiting the Aggies to only five attempts from the free throw line.
Penn State’s most valuable player in the first half was Pickett, who ended the half with 9 points and 6 assists while creating 28 of the Nittany Lions’ 38 points. To stop Penn State’s offense, A&M would have to do a better job containing Pickett.
The Nittany Lions were efficient from the field, making over half of their field goal attempts and six of their nine 3-point attempts. Penn State’s defense was excelling at forcing the Aggies into having disjointed possessions.
For A&M to come back from its early deficit, it would have to improve drastically on both ends of the floor. The Aggies’ backs were against the wall, with only 20 minutes of basketball left to save their season.
It was more of the same for Penn State in the second half as it continued to do a great job of sharing the ball. Another 3-pointer from Funk increased the Nittany Lions’ lead to 43-24.
Pressure continued to mount for the Aggies as Taylor continued to struggle from the field. Outside of a 3-point play in the first half, Taylor wasn’t able to contribute much offensively. In a battle of all-conference first team guards, Pickett was winning in a big way.
Five minutes into the second half, Penn State had built up its lead to 48-28 over A&M. The Aggies hit back-to-back 3-pointers to get within 16 points, 50-34, of the Nittany Lions, but Funk answered with his sixth 3-pointer on the ensuing possession to get Penn State’s lead back to 19 points.
The Nittany Lions continued to keep the Aggies at arm’s length, maintaining a 20-point lead with just over 10 minutes remaining.
A&M was in hail-mary mode on offense: shooting and missing 3-pointers at an alarming rate. One positive for the maroon and white was it continued to get offensive rebounds, but not much else. Penn State was excelling at almost every other facet of the game.
At the under-four minute timeout, the Nittany Lions led 69-48 over the Aggies. Suffice to say, A&M’s season was approaching its conclusion.
The Aggies lost to the Nittany Lions 76-59. Penn State will move on to face Texas in the Round of 32 on Saturday, March 19.
Dennis led the way for the Aggies with 19 points, with most of his output coming in the second half.
Funk was Penn State’s leading scorer with 27 points and eight 3-pointers. Pickett ended up playing the entire game and finished with 19 points, 7 rebounds and 8 assists.
Coach Buzz Williams said Penn State’s offense is built perfectly around Pickett’s quick decision-making.
“I think coach [Micah Shrewsberry] does a great job in how [Pickett] is utilized,” Williams said. “He has the highest usage rate of any player we’ve played this year. As talented as [Pickett] is, his best talent is he makes a decision immediately relative to how you are going to defend him.”
For almost the entire game, the Nittany Lions were by far the better team and did a great job of forcing the Aggies to play a fast-paced and perimeter-oriented style of play. A&M’s inability to get stops on defense forced it to play the game at a quicker pace.
Williams attributed the loss ultimately to a lack of cohesiveness on the defensive end.
“I think we were completely stressed out [with] what [Penn State] were doing offensively,” Williams said. “We were not sharp [in] our help on [Pickett], nor our coverage on the weak side.”
Dennis, a graduating senior, felt this season was his favorite as a college player.
“I think this season for me was a great experience,” Dennis said. “Looking back at my 4 or 5 year college career, this was my best year from front to back. Not just basketball, off the court [as well]. Just being an Aggie. This was the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Despite the loss, Williams and the rest of the players will look back fondly at their journey to the NCAA Tournament.
“I just told the group I’m really bad at beginning, and I’m even worse at endings,” Williams said. “I don’t like to pre-plan what [I’m] going to say if it goes bad. I want to keep playing. As yucky as this game was, I think we will look back at what has transpired over the last 75 days with great memories.”

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