OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma’s Sweet 16 opponent wasn’t supposed to be Texas A&M. The No. 3-seeded team in the West Region had been outplayed for 39 minutes and 30 seconds by Northern Iowa, everyone’s favorite underdog.
And it looked like the Panthers were going to pull of another Oklahoma City miracle – not long removed from Ali Farokhmanesh and the upset of Kansas.
Texas A&M erased a 12-point deficit in just 35 seconds. It’ll be Oklahoma against Texas A&M, two former Big 12 South rivals, in Anaheim in the Sweet 16, only the second appearance in Texas A&M history.
Somehow, it’s not Northern Iowa.
“I still don't know what happened, to be honest with you,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said.
It is Texas A&M, a team with length but lacking in shooting ability.
Texas A&M lost four straight games in February, not one to an NCAA Tournament team, but the Aggies followed that with an eight-game winning streak that included a win against Kentucky and two road victories.
The final 35 seconds against Northern Iowa were a near-copy of the Aggies’ season, a year that was a wave of emotions. Texas A&M (28-8) was ranked as high as No. 5 in the country and won its only game against the Wildcats. It also tumbled out of the top-25 and lost a home game against South Carolina.
“We thought we were down and out but this team has been fighting and fighting throughout the whole season,” forward Jalen Jones said. “ . . . It was just the world in us. The coaches said fight to the end. They kept saying fight. Our teammates on the bench continued to back us up. Ah man, we got an incredible win. This is one for the ages.”
Forwards Jalen Jones and Danuel House combined for 38 points but shot a combined 11-for-31. Alex Caruso scored 25 points. All three players are at least 6-foot-5 and gives Texas A&M a formidable backcourt. It’s also a team that shot 35 percent from behind the arc this season.
But less than an hour after the Aggies’ most improbably comeback, the conversation quickly turned to the next round and – to no one’s surprise – Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield.
“I don't know if you shut Buddy down,” Kennedy said. “I mean, nobody's been able to do it. You've got to guard the other guys too. It's a unique way.”
Kennedy recruited Hield out of Sunrise Christian Academy and called Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger a mentor, someone he has looked up “in so many ways.” Caruso said no single player will try and guard Hield. It’ll be a team effort, but he’s just as worried about the rest of the Oklahoma roster.
“We'll just be ready to take care of him and the rest of the guys that are shooting 50 percent from three, too,” Caruso said. “We'll be ready to go, though. It will take a full team effort just like (Sunday).”
Texas A&M has defended talented players like Tyler Ulis, Georges Niang and Ben Simmons this season. It doesn’t necessarily prepare the Aggies to face Hield, but it does leave the obvious goal of keeping up with Oklahoma’s offense and trying to play better defense than the Sooners.
“You've got to score,” Kennedy said. “We've got to do a much better job of scoring than we did tonight. But just the flow, the pace of the game that they play is kind of like we like to play a little bit. We've got to take advantage of Tyler Davis and get him the ball inside against a good Oklahoma team.”