Confident Aggies march into Sweet 16 after avoiding upsets

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — As a two-seed, Texas A&M was expected to breeze through the first two rounds of the women’s NCAA Tournament.

Instead they squeaked by in both of their first two games in the Mercado Region, winning by a combined six points to advance to the Sweet 16 for the third straight time.

They avoided becoming the first two-seed to lose to a No. 15 in the first-round with an 84-80 victory over Troy. the Aggies then rallied to beat No. 7 Iowa State 84-82 in overtime on Wednesday night with a buzzer-beater by Jordan Nixon.

“Is that because they have played so well or have we underplayed,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair rhetorically asked, before answering his own question: “I think it’s just March.”

The Aggies have provided some of the most exciting moments of the women’s tournament so far and hope to build on that when they meet No. 3 Arizona in the regional semifinal. The Wildcats are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since coach Adia Barnes was a player in 1998.

Nixon became a social media sensation after her heartfelt postgame television interview that came after she banked in the game-winner to cap a career-best 35-point night against Iowa State. LeBron James praised her on his Instagram story on Thursday and actress Gabrielle Union, who is married to former NBA star Dwyane Wade, tweeted about her, too.

Nixon’s Instagram account featured a picture of her teammates mobbing her after the shot and a video of the play. With it was a simple caption that has embodied the Aggies as they’ve survived these first two round: ‘Never say die.’

“The term resilient is something that always comes to mind when I think of any Texas A&M team, but especially this one,” she said. “We fight. It’s what we do. It’s what we’ve been doing all season.”

ARIZONA-TEXAS A&M

Nixon has been the breakout star of the tournament for the Aggies by combining for 56 points in two games. But Texas A&M (25-2) normally relies on a much more balanced scoring attack with all five starters averaging between 10.6 and 12.6 points a game this season.

The Wildcats (18-5) are led by Pac-12 Player of the Year Aari McDonald, who is averaging 19.6 points a game. McDonald was also the league’s defensive player of the year and has scored 20 and 17 points respectively in tournament wins over Stony Brook and BYU.

McDonald had several key plays down the stretch to help the Wildcats finally pull for the win against BYU.

“I knew that was my moment,” she said. “I didn’t want to go home, and I know my coaches and my teammates didn’t want to either. So, I had to put the team on my back and just come through clutch offensively and defensively.”

The X-Factor: Arizona’s Sam Thomas. The 6-foot senior can — and has — played all five positions for the Wildcats this season. Thomas is the overlooked key to the Arizon. She isn’t flashy but is the kind of player who does the kind of things that don’t make it into the box score. “She’s the glue that keeps us together,” McDonald said.

Players to Watch: Wildcats forward Trinity Baptiste averages just 8.6 points a game but had a career-high 18 in the first-round win. The senior leads the team by averaging 6.0 rebounds a game. Texas A&M center Ciera Johnson had a season-high 19 points against the Cyclones in a performance that was overshadowed by Nixon’s heroics. She also had three blocks, capped by one on Iowa State’s final possession that led to Nixon’s final shot.

Time: 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

INDIANA-NORTH CAROLINA STATE

No. 4 Indiana (20-5) is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since the field was expanded to 64 teams and will face top-seed North Carolina State on Saturday.

The Hoosiers have relied on stellar defense in the first two rounds, limiting Belmont to 48 points in the second round after holding VCU to just 32 in their first tournament game.

N.C. State, which earned a No. 1 seed for the first time, is in the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season. The Wolfpack’s leading scorer is 6-foot-5 Elissa Cunane, but she has cooled off in this tournament after scoring a combined 70 points in three games to earn MVP honors in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.

She scored just 12 points in an opening round win over NC A&T and was 3 of 15 from the field in another 12-point performance in the Wolfpack’s second-round win over South Florida.

Despite the struggles she remains confident in her abilities and talked about the difference from her first Sweet 16 as a freshman in 2019 to now.

“Expectations are a little bit higher this year,” she said. “We know that we can perform a lot more and go deeper than we did.”

X-Factor: N.C. State forward Kayla Jones. She missed the Wolfpack’s second-round game after injuring her left knee in the opening round and her status for Saturday’s game is uncertain. If she can’t play it will be a big blow with the senior averaging 11.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.

“A lot of it has to do with her being able to tolerate the pain and discomfort, but the doctors are also going to make sure that there is no risk involved and that it can’t do any damage,” coach Wes Moore said.

Players to watch: Indiana forward Aleksa Gulbe. She had a career-high 15 rebounds in the second round after grabbing 10 in the first game. She is averaging 9.1 points a game. N.C. State forward Jada Boyd. She scored 18 points off the bench in the team’s tournament opener before starting in the second game with Jones out and scoring 18 again. She’s also a good rebound and has had five games with at least 10 rebounds this season.

Time: 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2

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More AP women’s basketball: https://apnews.com/Womenscollegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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