KANSAS CITY — Texas A&M prides itself on defense. It leads the Big 12 Conference forcing 21.6 turnovers a game. It leads the league in 3-point defense, with opponents hitting just 26 percent of their 3-point shots.
But the intimidating defensive numbers aren’t the result of a full-court press or a brilliantly devised scheme. It’s a mentality that Aggies coach Gary Blair instills in his players from the moment they arrive in College Station. Texas.
“For us to win and keep winning, you have to have perfection on defense every possession,” Blair said after the Aggies defeated Missouri 65-39 Wednesday in the second round of the Big 12 Conference women’s basketball tournament. “You can screw up offense every once in a while, but there’s no excuse for defense. That’s what we demand out of our kids on defense and they came ready to play tonight.
“It’s not the turnovers that we’re forcing, it’s the atmosphere we’re creating. We don’t want the point guard to be comfortable.”
While Blair said his team’s defense wasn’t perfect at Municipal Auditorium, it was close. The Aggies forced MU into 20 turnovers and held the Tigers to 44 shot attempts, a season low. Missouri only made 15 of those field goals for 39 points, the second-lowest totals of the season in those categories.
“We’re very confident in our defense, and our defense has been dictating the flow of our games since February, and that’s when we started playing really well,” Texas A&M guard Takia Starks said. “We came out tonight ready to make defensive stops. We say if they can’t catch it, they can’t score. We didn’t want to let them make plays, and it carried over for the whole second half.
“Denying is denying and rebounding is rebounding. No matter who you play, you have to have that mentality.”
This wasn’t the first time the Aggies’ defense gave the Tigers fits. In the teams’ first matchup in January, A&M held MU to 43 points and forced 29 turnovers.
“I thought they were not only the best defensive team in our league, but one of the top five defensive teams in country,” MU coach Cindy Stein said. “You have to play with a lot of poise, and you have to have playmakers.”
Missouri’s playmakers all season have been the trio of Alyssa Hollins, Jessra Johnson and Shakara Jones. The three combined for just 24 points on 10-of-32 shooting, and as it has for much of the season, their struggles meant defeat.
Hollins had a particularly tough time getting loose, finishing with a team-high 11 points on 4-of-16 from the field.
“Everybody knows about their defense, and they were face-guarding me,” she said. “Every time I came off an on-ball screen, there was a trap there. So they were making it tough for me and you’ve got to give it to them, but I still need to knock shots down.”
After an exhausting game like Tuesday’s overtime thriller against Oklahoma, there was very little room for error against Texas A&M. While the Tigers tried to regroup and ride the emotional energy wave for another day, there simply wasn’t enough left in the tank.
“I feel like we hit a wall in the first half,” Stein said. “You could see it in them. We kind of ran out of juice, but that’s where your depth has to come in and bring that energy. I thought our kids battled, but we just didn’t have the energy we had yesterday.”
Jones, who had 16 points and seven boards in the upset over Oklahoma, could only score four points and grab just two rebounds on Wednesday, well below her season averages.
“Yesterday was a pounding,” Jones said. “I had Courtney Paris on me (for 43 minutes). I wouldn’t say I was fatigued, just a little sore.”
While the Aggies didn’t change their game plan to account for Missouri’s dead legs, Blair knew it might only take a little bit for the Tigers to find the energy to pull off another stunner.
“I really believe that Missouri was just dead tired after that ballgame,” he said. “That’s why it was so important for us to get the lead early on them, before they started doing this David vs. Goliath stuff again.”