Playing deep into March has become an annual occurrence for the second-seeded and ninth-ranked Texas A&M women's basketball team (27-7) and this year is no different as the Aggies are making back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances for the first time in program history after cruising to first-and second-round victories over 15th-seeded Evansville (80-45) on March 22 and 10th-seeded Minnesota (73-42) on March 24.
A defensive clash with sixth-seeded and 19th-ranked Arizona State (25-8) awaits the Aggies in the regional semifinals of the 2009 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Championship to be played on Sunday, March 29 at Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, N.J.
Tipoff between the Aggies and Sun Devils is set for 1:30 p.m. (CT) on ESPN2.
A&M has won nine of its last 11 games and forced the Purple Aces and Golden Gophers to season highs in turnovers with 62 combined for an average of 31.0 per NCAA game thus far.
With their defense-first mentality, the Aggies currently lead all tournament teams with a +16.5 turnover margin and 19.0 steals per game. They are heading into the Trenton Regional looking to reverse their fortune from a year ago, when they lost to top-seeded Tennessee in the Elite Eight, in hopes of getting closer to their ultimate team goal of seeing the arches in St. Louis.
A&M has held opponents to an NCAA Tournament-leading 43.5 points a game and may meet their match in the Sun Devils who also pride themselves in defense.
The winner will have a date with top-seeded and top-ranked Connecticut (35-0) or fourth-seeded and 13th-ranked California (27-6) in the regional finals on Tuesday, March 31 at 6 p.m. (CT) on ESPN.
A&M is one of only eight teams in this year's NCAA Sweet 16 tournament field to have reached the regional semifinals a year ago.
Arizona State is making its third trip to the Sweet 16 in the last five seasons under head coach Charli Turner Thorne who is the winningest women's basketball coach in program history.
The Sun Devils finished tied for second with Cal in the final Pac-10 standings with a 15-3 mark. They have allowed only 55.2 points per game this season which ranks as the second-lowest per-game average for the Sun Devils in school history.
The Sun Devils advanced with a 63-58 second-round victory over third-seeded Florida State on March 23.
Briann January was named first-team All-Pac-10 and the Pac-10's Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season.
January is ASU's all-time assists leader with 530 assists in her career.
January concluded the regular season ranked second in the nation in 3-point FG percentage (.469) and 12th in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.09).
January led the Pac-10 in assists per game (4.7), 3-point FG percentage (.469) and assist to turnover ratio, was second in steals per game (2.3), fourth in free throw percent (.840) and 3-point FGs per game (2.0) and 14th in scoring (12.1 ppg).
Briann January played for Texas A&M associate head coach Vic Schaefer on the U.S. Women's Jones Cup Team in 2007, and Schaefer says of January, "Briann is a tremendous competitor. She's a very smart and heady player. She is doing a great job of stepping up and moving from the two to the one (position) and getting the rest of her team involved. That's just her unselfish nature. She is a great player who can see the floor well and can shoot at a tremendous range. She is a real steadying influence on her basketball team. She doesn't get rattled. She did a great job for me in Taiwan and for our team. We have our work cut out for us in dealing with her."
In Arizona State's upset of Florida State, January overcame foul trouble and a sprained ankle to score 11 points and hand out six assists., and she has averaged 13.3 points and 6.0 assists in ASU's last four games.
Sybil Dosty is averaging 8.2 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, and has led the Sun Devels in rebounding the past two years. Dosty has 86 career blocks, ranking third on ASU's all-time list.
Dosty led Arizona's upset of Florida State, with 13 points and nine rebounds.
Arizona State lost leading scorer Dymond Simon for the year when she tore knee ligament in a 77-68 setback at Stanford on March 7 which ended a 15-game win streak for the Sun Devils. Simon had been averaging 13.8 points per game.
Takia Starks, Danielle Gant and junior Tanisha Smith have provided Texas A&M with a powerful one-two-three scoring punch in postseason play. The trio, tabbed "The Three Amigos" by Coach Blair, have reached double figures over the last five Big 12 and NCAA Tournament games combined.
Gant is currently tied for 19th nationally among NCAA Tournament leaders averaging 20.5 points per game and is seventh-best in field-goal percentage with a 79.2 percent accuracy from the floor (19-of-24). She has turned in four 20-point outbursts in her last five outings.
Meanwhile, Starks is second on the team in scoring and rebounding averaging 18.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, while Smith knocked down a career-high 20 points against Evansville in the first round and is averaging 16.5 ppg.
It is not a surprise that Texas A&M ranks among the top 10 leaders in eight statistical categories through the first two games played in the NCAA Tournament including tied for seventh in scoring offense (76.5), second only to Connecticut (+33.5) in scoring margin (+33.0), fourth in free throw percentage (88.0), 10th in field-goal percentage (47.4), 10th in field-goal percentage defense (33.7) and first in steals (19.0).
Individually, sophomore point guard Sydney Colson is tied for third in steals per game (4.5 avg) followed by freshman Sydney Carter (3.0 avg) and Tanisha Smith (3.0 avg) in a tie for 12th.
The Aggies are an impressive 6-1 during March Madness over the last three years (not counting its 53-45 loss to eventual national champion Tennessee in the NCAA Elite Eight on April 1, 2008). If you include Big 12 regular-season and postseason tournament games over the last two seasons, the Aggies boast a 14-2 (.875) mark in the month of March to date.
Should A&M advance past the regional semifinal, it would mark its second consecutive and second-ever trip to the NCAA Elite Eight. The Aggies have never faced Connecticut in the 35-year history of Aggie Basketball and met Cal only once in 1982 (0-1) under former head coach Cherri Rapp.
Texas A&M Head Coach Gary Blair is expecting a hard fought game with Arizona State, "I think it is a good matchup for us. Both of us are very similar. They are a very aggressive defensive and up-tempo team. They shoot the ball extremely well and that is something we are going to have to defend. Their percentages are outstanding. They are close to the Connecticut and probably more so in the Oklahoma range in field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and three-point field goal percentage. They like to force turnovers and that is what a Sweet 16 team is supposed to look like as far as percentages go. She (Arizona State head coach Charli Turner Thorne) has built that program from nothing out there and has been able to sustain a top 25 program. Give her a lot of credit. They have been in the top three of their league over the last six or seven years and have been to the Elite Eight."