Time For Blair To Get His Ring

Eight seasons ago, Gary Blair took over a struggling Texas A&M women's basketball program that many pundits said was one of the worst in Division-I women's hoops. On the eve of his first national championship game in his 28-year head coaching career, Blair is poised to go from worst to first. Aggie Websider's David Sandhop takes a look at how Blair did it through each season.

When Gary Blair accepted Bill Byrne's offer to coach the Texas A&M women's basketball team in 2003, the program languished in the basement of the Big 12 conference. In fact, many observers believed the Texas A&M job was a no-win situation, and understandably so. The Aggies were in the midst of seven straight losing seasons and a cumulative Big 12 record of 22-90. Texas A&M had never finished higher than ninth place since the inception of the Big 12 in 1996.

So it was a surprise when Byrne persuaded Blair to take the reins of the downtrodden program. After all, Blair took Stephen F. Austin to four NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen berths and guided Arkansas to a Final Four appearance. As an assistant coach under legendary coach Leon Barmore at Louisiana Tech, Blair won two national championships and went to four Final Fours before taking the Lumberjack job. Ironically, one of his key players on those national championship teams was current Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, and former boss Barmore is on Mulkey's BU staff.

However, despite his distinguished track record, success did not come easy. With inherited players from the previous staff, the Lady Aggies struggled in Blair's first season finishing 9-19 and 2-14 in Big 12 play. But Blair went to work on the recruiting trail and tapped into his contacts within the AAU circuit and his East Texas, Arkansas, and northern Louisiana connections from his Arkansas days to land that first class with Aquonesia Franklin (Tyler), LaToya Gulley (Fayetteville), and Morenike Atunrase (Shreveport), that helped turn the fortunes of the program. Blair and the Texas A&M program never looked back.

In his second season, Blair and his freshmen scratched out the program's first winning record (16-15) in nine years and accepted a WNIT berth and advanced to the quarterfinal round. While the team still struggled in the powerful Big 12 with a 4-12 record, the post season success in the WNIT was a preview of the 2006 team that registered a 23-9 record, 11-5 in the Big 12, and finally garnered Texas A&M's first NCAA Tournament berth since 1996. That team was boosted by Blair's second stellar freshman class that included Takia Starks, Danielle Gant, and LaToya Micheaux.

At that point, Blair had his program on cruise control and a fixture in the nation's Top 20. In 2007, the program took another step forward winning the Big 12 title with a 13-3 conference mark in route to 25-win season and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

In 2008, Blair added highly-rated Houston guard Sydney Colson, Mary Ann Baker, and Tyra White. White was an athletic prospect from Kansas City, and marked the first of several times that Blair cherry-picked top talent from the metropolitan area. This class is also the cornerstone of today's Final Four team. On the court, the Aggies continued to establish themselves as an elite program in the Big 12 finishing with a 29-8 record and winning the Big 12 Tournament. The 2008 season also marked the first time Texas A&M made noise on the national scene, advancing to the Elite Eight and falling eight points short of reaching the Final Four against Tennessee and the best player in women's basketball Candace Parker.

A 27-8 record and a Sweet Sixteen birth highlighted the 2009 season. But it was the 2009 Top five recruiting class of Sydney Carter, Kelsey Assarian, Adaora Elonu and Kansas City junior transfer Tanisha Smith that marked Blair's highest-rated recruiting class to date which is certainly paying dividends in today's run at the 2011 national championship.

Expectations were high for the 2010 season with the return of the core group of talent from recent top-rated recruiting classes and the addition of two-time JUCO All-American Danielle Adams from Kansas City, the third highly-touted prospect from the city. Despite the most talented roster in Blair's six seasons in College Station, the team stumbled to a 10-6 conference record and a fourth place finish, the team's lowest finish in four years. But, the squad rebounded to sweep through the Big 12 Tournament and capture the title. As a No. 2 seed, expectations were high for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. However, the Aggies were tripped up in the second round by Gonzaga marking the second straight early exit for the Lady Aggies and raising questions whether this core group of players would be labeled as underachievers in their careers at Texas A&M.

The 2010-2011season again started with high expectations and dreams of that Final Four berth in the NCAA Tournament that had eluded Gary Blair in his time at Texas A&M. The long-time coach with an .800 career winning percentage did everything he was asked to do when he was hired by Bill Byrne seven years earlier. He resurrected the Lady Aggie program, restocked the roster with high school all-Americans and established Texas A&M's women's program as a power broker in a very competitive Big 12 Conference. But for Blair to truly get his program over the proverbial hump, he needed to get his talented group of players into the national spotlight and into the Final Four. Unfortunately, there was a huge roadblock in achieving that goal, and it was 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner and Kim Mulkey's Baylor Bear team that many considered on-par with national powers Connecticut, Tennessee, and Stanford.

The Lady Aggies jumped out to an impressive 17-1 record with the lone blemish being a tough road loss to No. 5 rated Duke. That set up a monumental Big 12 showdown with Baylor who ascended to the nation's No. 1 spot earlier in the season when Stanford knocked off undefeated Connecticut. No. 5 rated Texas A&M dropped a heartbreaker at Reed Arena to the Bears when freshman point guard Odyssey Sims sparked a second half comeback and a 63-60 victory. Texas A&M again had a chance to knock off No. 1 Baylor three weeks later, jumping out to a big first half advantage and leading for most of the game. However, with Texas A&M's post players in foul trouble, Brittney Griner took over the game in the closing minutes and Blair's team came up short a second time.

But the Lady Aggies would have a third shot at the Bears in the Big 12 Tournament final, and for the third time Kim Mulkey's bunch prevailed. As in Waco, Texas A&M jumped out to a big lead scoring the game's first 12 points. But once again, the best player in women's college basketball took control on both ends of the court scoring 31 points and blocking a Big 12 Tournament record seven shots.

With Baylor guaranteed a No. 1 national seed and the Aggies considered the top No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Blair wouldn't have to worry about the Bears until a possible Final Four matchup in Indianapolis. However, the selection committee played a cruel joke on both Big 12 powers and placed both teams in the Southwest bracket where they would meet in the regional final in Dallas. The Aggies and Bears cruised through to the regional final and an unprecedented fourth contest between the two Brazos rivals. For Blair and his program to finally attain national respect, he had to find a way to beat the best team in the country and the best player in the land.

For the third time, Texas A&M jumped out to an early lead. The Aggie defense suffocated Griner and kept her out of the paint for most of the game. The strategy worked, as Griner was flustered and struggled all night hitting 6-of-18 shots and finishing with just 20 points. The rest of the BU squad didn't have an answer and appeared stunned by the on-ball pressure and defensive intensity. The result was a convincing 58-46 victory in the only game that mattered in the end. The Aggies were going to the Final Four and Kim Mulkey was headed back to Waco.

Of course, many basketball analysts and pundits felt the Aggies left it all on the court against No. 1 seed Baylor, and would be ready to roll over against powerhouse Stanford who won 27 consecutive games including the big victory to break Connecticut's three year winning streak. The pundits appeared to be right at the six minute mark of the second half with the Aggies down by 10 points and fading. However, somebody didn't tell the Texas A&M players that they were supposed to go quietly in the night to set-up a Stanford-UConn rematch in the NCAA Championship Game.

With three-point plays by Tyra White, Danielle Adams, and Sydney Carter that cut the Stanford lead to one at 58-57. Two free throws by Sydney Colson with under minute to play gave Texas A&M its first lead in the second half but Stanford grabbed the lead back on its next possession with two free throws by their all-American Nnemkadi Ogwumike. Not to be denied Tyra White drove the baseline and made a layup with 20 seconds remaining to regain the lead, but with nine seconds left Ogwumike made an off-balanced one handed runner to give Stanford a 62-61 advantage. Much like a boxer that has been knocked to the ground, the Aggies had time for one more desperate play and without any timeouts Sydney Colson sprinted down the length of the court and found White on a bounce pass for the point blank lay-up to give the Aggies the lead for good with three seconds to spare.

The last minute of that game epitomizes the season for this veteran team who seemed to get knocked down by the world champion fighter only to keep getting up when everybody thought they would stay down. This team has erased all the memories of early round exits from recent NCAA Tournaments and they have set the bar higher than any basketball team in school history – male or female. They have defeated two No. 1 national seeds and find themselves 40 minutes from a national championship. Regardless of what happens, the ladies on the team have fulfilled all of their expectations and will be proud of their accomplishments regardless of the outcome on Tuesday night.

But Tuesday night is about one man…Gary Blair. The likable Texan has never done anything the easy way, but he's delivered at every destination along the way. He has every accolade and honor that a women's college coach could have, except one. He has been an assistant coach on a national championship team. He's turned around moribund programs into Top 10 powerhouses. He has won multiple BCS conference titles, taken three different teams to the Sweet Sixteen and now two teams to the Final Four. He lacks one accomplishment, a feat that would be the cherry on top of a distinguished 27 year head coaching career…a national championship. Here's to the Lady Aggies putting that cherry on top for Coach Blair. He's put in his time. He's been a tireless ambassador for Texas A&M and women's basketball. It's his time. He deserves it.


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