AUSTIN, Texas – Texas A&M coach Gary Blair watched one historic upset in the NCAA Tournament from up close. He was nearly part of one 23 years later.
Blair, who was with his former Arkansas program watching No. 16 seed Harvard upend No. 1 Stanford in 1988 in what is still the biggest upset in tournament history, had to coax his Aggies to a wild 84-80 first-round win over No. 15 Troy on Monday night.
“To advance in this tournament, you have to have games like this,” Blair said. “You have to look at yourself in the mirror and find out the answers.”
No 15 seed has ever beaten a No. 2, and it took a gritty effort by Aggies guard Jordan Nixon over the final six minutes to turn away a historic result.
Nixon scored nine points in the final quarter, trading baskets and free throws with the Trojans after Troy had taken the lead with 5:51 left.
“We showed resiliency. I mean, survive and advance. That’s what it’s all about,” Nixon said. “Obviously, we didn’t play our best game in any way shape or form.”
Next up is a second-round matchup against No. 7 Iowa State, which beat No. 10 Michigan State 79-75.
Troy was left to wonder what might have been in a game where the Trojans rallied, only to see it turn on late foul calls and solid free-throw shooting in the final moments.
Texas A&M’s Destiny Pitts made four free throws over the final 6 seconds. The last two came after she appeared to dribble the ball into the backcourt on an inbounds pass, but game officials determined she didn’t have possession of the ball yet when it crossed the line.
“I knew that if we put them on the free-throw line in the fourth quarter that it was going to be hard to beat them. It just seemed like we kept getting called foul after foul after foul,” Troy coach Chanda Rigby said.
Aaliyah Wilson’s layup with 1:12 to play gave Texas A&M a 79-77 lead that held up with Pitts at the line. Her poise proved critical when the Aggies fouled Troy’s Janiah Sandifer on a 3-pointer with 4 seconds left and she made two free throws. Pitts made two more foul shots with 2.6 seconds left for the final margin.
Nixon did everything for the Aggies down the stretch. Her scoring burst came after Troy had taken a 71-69 lead. She also snagged a rebound on a late 3-pointer and covered a loose ball that led to Pitts’ first pair of free throws.
Nixon finished with 21 points. Ciera Johnson had 16 points and 14 rebounds for the Aggies (24-2).
Alexus Dye scored 26 for Troy (22-6), but fouled out with 31 seconds to play. Felmas Koranga had 20 points.
“Basically we just proved to people all over the world that we’re more than capable,” Dye said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re a mid-major or any kind of major. It’s all about heart.”
After a 49-point first half, Texas A&M scored just 16 points in the third quarter as the game tightened up behind Troy’s fast, aggressive and pressing defense.
Troy started the final period with a 6-0 run. A 3-pointer from Sandifer tied it at 69 and the Trojans took their first lead on a basket from Tiyah Johnson with just under six minutes to play. The Trojans made seven of their first eight shots of the quarter.
Nixon’s late scoring on a mix of strong drives to the basket and baseline jumpers steadied, and rescued, the Aggies.
“When it comes down to the end, we know how to execute and run plays,” Blair said.
Penny Davis, NCAA national coordinator of officiating, said game officials were in the right place to determine whether Pitts had possession before taking the ball into the backcourt in the final seconds.
“This was an extremely close play. The officials judged that control of the basketball was not gained until the Texas A&M player was in the backcourt. It was as close as they come. No camera or person had a better angle on the play than the official,” Davis said.
LONG RANGE WOES
Troy’s best chances for an upset faded with woeful shooting on 3-pointers. The Trojans were 4 of 23 from long range.
While most teams traveled to Texas for the tournament, the Aggies got to play their first game on a familiar court. They beat Texas at the Frank Erwin Center in December.