In a whirlwind week, the Texas A&M Women’s Basketball program had yet one more cause for celebration. Just five days ago, Reed Arena held the official unveiling of the 2011 NCAA championship banner prior to winning the contest vs. the Louisville Cardinals, live on ESPN, no less.
As if Associate Head Coach, Kelly Bond, needed one more thing to add to her info packages to send prospective recruits, she got one anyway, now being able to say that Texas A&M’s program leader now has 600 career wins as a Division I Head Coach. After all, thanks to Bond’s relentless pursuit of ‘the best and the brightest’ in the nation, TAMU announced—just two weeks ago—that they’d signed what most consider to be the #2 recruiting class in the country, bringing in Courtney Walker, Chelsea Jennings, Curtyce Knox, Courtney Williams, Jordan Jones and Peyton Little for 2012.
Coach Vic Schaefer even smiled again tonight, hard for the harbinger of the Aggie defense during the season. The first time he smiled was in talking about his new recruits, including “Big Rache” (Rachel Mitchell) and how everyone on the team was going to be working harder than ever (as if what they did before didn’t matter). The second smile came tonight when Schaefer’s friend, Blair, was honored for win no. 600. The final score was 93 to 47 over Mississippi State’s Lady Bulldogs.
As home game PA announcer, Mark Edwards, shared the news that ‘the team had a presentation to make’, Blair assumed the most humble of stances. His head hung down slightly as he stared hard at the floor, presumably to blink back the tears and get the lump out of his throat. Blair was clearly caught offguard by what followed. He leaned back against the announcer’s desk for support for a moment, and rested there to watch the video presentation on the jumbotron.
In the video, there were an abundant number of congratulations messages filmed in advance from his players who had been a part of all his victories. Cherished photographs of Coach Blair with the former players were shown. It was fun to see Gary Blair through the years. A special surprise included words of love from his family in Arkansas, including his grandson, who held the mike and said, “Congratulations, Papaw, I love you.”
Next, Sydney Carter took the microphone to speak for the team, and was eloquent: ‘Coach Blair, I speak on behalf of the team when I say we are so grateful for your dedication and for your passion, not only for this team but for the game of women’s basketball. We just want to thank you for the opportunity that you’ve given us to play for this university.’ Then, she grinned as she quipped, ‘We love you, Grandpa.’ Blair alternated between standing with his arms crossed and shifting to stand with his hands in his pocket as he took it all in.
Blair went over to hug ‘Carter’ as he calls her, and the team presented him with a bouquet of roses. Next, they lead him over to a covered item on an easel that had gone previously unnoticed. Lifting the veil, it was a framed Aggie jersey (just like the ones presented to graduating seniors) bearing the team jersey number ‘600’ on it. It was great fun for the audience to watch as the coach had no clue about what has been happening around him for weeks with the surprises.
Recovering from the emotion, Blair was quick to ask his fellow coaches to come stand with him, pointing at Asst. Coach Johnnie Harris to come join him, then making sure the rest followed, as he wanted them in the group photographs being taken by myriad cameras. He was intent on sharing this moment with those he considered his equals. Then as he took the microphone, in true Blair style, he did the expected.
Never mind that his team had just garnered his 600th career victory. There he was, working, trying to drum up attendance for the next home game v. the USC Trojans. As he said, ‘we’ll be gone for a month on the road, but when we come home, I want you to come back on December 18th, and bring two friends with you other than who you brought with you tonight as we play another national team.’ This man never stops working.
Blair thanked all his players and his fellow coaches from all the schools whose programs he’s led, and then he allowed himself to be embraced in a circle of love from all his players, including Danielle Adams, who watched today’s victory from the crosscourt floor.
Today’s victory was more than just a win: it was a true team victory. Every player saw court time, and the operative words of the day were relentless pursuit, hustle, execution, defense, and determination. Case in point of determination was Kelsey Bone’s gesture when she’d had to muscle her way in to complete a shot that Mississippi State was trying to deny. It took three attempts, but when she’d made her shot, Bone gestured with her arm (nicely) as if to say, “there, I got it!” She worked hard every play to get the most and the best out of every move and was a scoring leader.
Entirely unobjectively and ignorant of stats (best left to sports writers), the ‘view from this perch’ says that Adaora Elonu continues to show intelligence and great skill in her play, waiting for her shots, passing off generously when she sees someone else more open and in position; she was one major playmaker. Skylar ‘the scholar’ Collins plays such smart basketball, her results were grade A today. Karla Gilbert was the queen of rebounds as she got in there and pulled them down. She’d also worked on those precious free throws since the last game, nailing four in a row. Tyra White’s shooting skill makes it appear effortless for the ball to go in with nothing but net. She makes it look easy, and she’s modest about her skills.
Sydney Carter is a leader, on and off game, one of the most intimidating forces on the court, daring anyone to get past her toward the basket. Adrienne Pratcher played with skill and smarts, and it was fun to see her confidence and skill at court leadership. Alexia Standish (whose name we hear people calling from the audience, “way to go Lexi!”) is a great ball handler and stands straight as an arrow as she dribbles up and down the court with style. Her shooting figures didn’t reflect the great contributions she and Pratcher made all day long. Both are becoming crowd favorites.
Cierra Windham, Kristin Grant, and Tori Scott were absolutely on fire, and their played showed growth in confidence, speed, and accuracy. The crowd was pleased when Rachel Mitchell went in, as they were heard saying, “ah, here comes Big Rache.” They know that Baylor’s team is already learning her name and watching her move. They should.
Kelsey Assarian’s middle name should be ‘mine’, as in ‘I’m not going to let you take that rebound from me because it is mine!’ She continues to be valuable under the basket. Last but by no means least, it was a joy to watch Kristi Bellock play today. She’s 6’1” and plays smart, and unselfishly. You can see her smile when a teammate makes a shot, and she’s as fast as anyone to get on defense after she makes her own shot. Another ‘word of the day’ was selflessness.
In fact, as Coach Blair made his remarks, on his big day, he noted the accomplishments of the Mississippi State head coach Sharon Fanning, as he announced that she was only 3 wins away from the same record. Fanning is in her 17th season with the Lady Bulldogs, and there’s clearly great respect between the two coaches.
That’s the core of the TAMU Women’s Basketball team this season, respect and selflessness and (yes, Coach Schaefer), defense. It’s the hallmark of the players on the court, it’s the lessons taught by the coaches off the court, reinforced by the spiritual guidance of strength coach, Jennifer Jones, in between the academics and the athletics. It’s what makes Texas A&M women’s basketball so special this season.
The celebrations have concluded, for now. The NCAA championship banner is subtly, but clearly, hanging from the east alcove wall. The championship rings are tucked away for safekeeping as the team focuses on the business of the 2011-2012 season, a clean slate, currently with 5 ‘Ws’.
The student-led Women’s Rowdies have made their mission as a recently new organization to get as many students, faculty, and staff into Reed Arena to support these dynamic young ladies of the game this season. They’re well on their way.
The Aggie Women’s team spends Thanksgiving weekend in the Bahamas at the Junkanoo Jam (11/25, 26), followed by a Big 12/Big 10 matchup at Purdue (12/4), then travels east to Storrs, Connecticut to play the U Conn team in the Jimmy V Women’s Basketball Classic (12/6), before coming back to Texas, to play TCU (12/11) in Ft. Worth. Then, it’s back home to Reed Arena to play USC on December 18th.
The day’s events were not 100% filled with joy. The crowd at Reed Arena observed a moment of silence before the game, to commemorate the lives of the two Oklahoma State University coaches, Blair’s friends and colleagues, Kurt Budtke and Miranda Serna, whose plane crashed Thursday afternoon, also claiming the lives of the pilot, former Oklahoma state senator, Olin Branstetter, and his wife, Paula.
As the crowd hung around after the game, having sawed Varsity’s horns off in victory tradition, folks were reluctant to leave, preferring to just stand and watch the joy being shared of this year’s team, united in purpose. A quiet smile was on the face of Billie Davis, assistant to the TAMU Interim Sr. AVP for Facilities, who’s been following the Aggie Women since she arrived to work on campus in the late 1980s. She remembers watching the team, under Coach Lynn Hickey, play in G. Rollie White coliseum and she’s surely in the top echelon of those who’ve logged more hours watching the team than any others.
When asked how she felt about today’s victory, she smiled and said, ‘it’s a tremendous joy to have watched our team all these years and to see their progression toward this day, this team, this win. How far they have come, how far we have come.’ Indeed.
Drawing the ‘+’ sign on his hand as Blair does has become something that the Aggie basketball crowd has embraced, many following suit themselves. It’s a good thing, staying positive, no matter the situation. This season continues to show all kinds of results of thinking positive. Today, the victory was positively delightful. Congratulations to Coach Blair and his entire staff and team for win no. 600. How sweet it is.