Merely one game over .500 through 11 games, Texas A&M closed the regular season by winning 19 of its final 23 contests.
Make no mistake, coach Buzz Williams’ Aggies are on a tear entering their NCAA Tournament Midwest Region first-round game against Penn State on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa. As winners of eight of 10, however, the Nittany Lions are pretty hot themselves.
Seventh-seeded Texas A&M (25-9) hasn’t lost consecutive games since Dec. 17-20, and is primed to regroup from Sunday’s 82-63 loss in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game to eventual NCAA Tournament top seed Alabama.
Tenth-seeded Penn State (22-13) also is coming off a loss in a conference tournament final, falling 67-65 to Purdue for the Big Ten crown.
“We’ve improved a lot,” Aggies leading scorer Wade Taylor IV said. “Coach preaches to us every day about being resilient, staying together through the ups and downs. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs through these last 65 days. I’m excited for what the future holds. We’ve been through a lot. We can carry that on for momentum going into the next game, too.”
The Nittany Lions tote similar optimism into the meeting. Trailing Purdue — the eventual recipient of another NCAA Tournament top seed — by 17 points with 6:18 to go, Penn State regrouped before its rally fell just short.
Dialing up its defense proved the catalyst.
“It’s nowhere we haven’t been before,” Penn State’s Myles Dread said. “We’re a gritty team, and we’ve been in multiple different down-and-out situations. We’re down, but we’re never out in any game, the way we shoot the ball and the way we defend.
“We just locked in on the focus of defending, running good offense and rebounding, and we started chipping away.”
Should Penn State channel similar intensity Thursday, Texas A&M could endure its share of fits. The Aggies shot 43.5 percent during the regular season, including 32.8 percent from 3-point range. Taylor shot 40.6 percent while averaging 16.5 points during the regular season, while Tyrece Radford shot 38.8 percent in averaging 13.2 points.
Three Nittany Lions averaged double-figure scoring during the regular season: Jalen Pickett (17.9 points a game), Seth Lundy (14.4) and Andrew Funk (12.1).
Penn State is a 46.4 percent shooting team, including 38.5 percent from long range. The Nittany Lions were just 7-for-23 (30.4 percent) from deep against Purdue, however.
“We had a lot of good looks that we just missed,” Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry said. “Like we’re playing extremely hard on both ends of the court. We’ve played three, including this, four straight tough, close games, and we’re putting out a lot of effort. So it’s hard to make shots like that, especially on day four.”
The Aggies, who felt they were snubbed from the NCAA Tournament last season, are back in the event for the first time in five seasons.
Texas A&M is 4-0 all-time against Penn State. The schools haven’t met since 2017.
“The next season we’re going into can be four days or it can be three and a half weeks,” the Aggies’ Williams said. “So I think our identity has evolved and morphed into a lot of good things over the last couple of months.”
–Field Level Media