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OKLAHOMA CITY--The roar was deafening inside Bridgestone Arena last Sunday. The Kentucky Wildcats had just taken a seven point lead with 4:01 remaining in the second half, and the headache-fueling din was loud enough to prompt some fans sitting near the floor to cover their ears. As television announcers love to say, it was danger time for the Aggies.
In the middle of it all, Texas A&M's players and coaches didn't flinch. In fact, they thrived.
With the school's first conference tournament postseason title since 1987 on the verge of slipping away, the Aggies did what championship-caliber teams do: they got up off the mat, threw a couple haymakers and battled back into the game.
A&M locked down on defense and didn't allow a field goal for the remainder of regulation. A pair of buckets by Tyler Davis and Jalen Jones then cut the lead to three. After a few UK free throws, Danuel House drilled a three-pointer and sank a driving, twisting runner in the lane with 19 seconds left to force overtime.
The Aggies eventually fell in OT, but the way in which they battled may have earned them more positive praise and national respect than any of the team's 26 victories this season.
It's also the reason A&M is in prime position to make a deep run in March Madness. The 3rd-seeded Aggies open their NCAA Tournament today at 6:20 p.m. against 14th-seeded Green Bay.
The comeback against Kentucky in the SEC finals was eye opening to many. It would have been one thing to do it in the friendly confines of Reed Arena, but to rise up in a hostile environment where A&M fans were outnumbered more than 50-to-1 against a team that rolls five-star after five-star off the bench...well, it wasn't exactly normal.
"That week helped us a bunch," said A&M coach Billy Kennedy. "We were able to go through that whole (postseason) process and doing it three times for three games was a good experience for us."
It was also a major step in the evolution of this team.
Previously, the Aggies owned a road record of 5-5, with the wins coming against SEC teams that finished a combined 31-59 in league play. Four of those five teams finished below .500, with Georgia being the only road team A&M beat that finished with a winning league record.
The Aggies appear to be surging now, however, and have many of the key ingredients winning teams tend to have in March.
Savvy seniors? A&M starts four of them.
An explosive scorer who can take over a game? Hello, Danuel House and Jalen Jones.
A physical forward who can exert his will on the opposition? A&M coaches wouldn't trade Tyler Davis for anyone in the country.
Confidence? A&M has it in bulk right now, after winning six of their last seven games.
Impact players coming off the bench? DJ Hogg, Admon Gilder and Tonny Trocha-Morelos could start for many teams in the NCAA Tournament.
"We feel good about ourselves," Jones said. "Our coaches have been doing a great job of preparing us. Collectively as both veterans and young guys, we feel really good. We have a lot of confidence going into this tournament."
The biggest knock on the Aggies' chances of a deep run is a lack of NCAA Tournament experience.
Only graduate transfer Anthony Collins has played in the NCAA postseason, but that happened way back in 2012 when he was a freshman at South Florida. Fellow seniors Alex Caruso, House and Jones will be making their first foray into the Big Dance. Green Bay's team will also be making its first appearance in the Big Dance since 1996.
"There will probably be a little bit of jitters," said senior Alex Caruso. "They have good players and we have good players. We've both made the conference finals. They won theirs and we lost ours, so playing in big, important games isn't something new."
As Caruso pointed out, A&M isn't lacking for experience on the sideline. Each A&M coach has NCAA coaching experience, and assistant coach Kyle Keller and associate head coach Rick Stansbury have both coached in the Final Four. Kennedy's first appearance in the NCAA Tournament as a head coach, in 2005 with Southeastern Louisiana, occurred in Oklahoma City.
"I've been through it before," Kennedy said. "It's all about preparing for Green Bay and getting ourselves right. Hopefully the experience helps, but ultimately it's about the players and how they handle the moment and how they handle what Wisconsin Green Bay throws at us."
Perhaps that is why several basketball insiders are predicting big things out of the Aggies. ESPN's Jay Bilas predicted A&M to make the Final Four, as did CBS' Seth Davis during the Selection Sunday broadcast. Sports Illustrated insider Luke Winn said he wouldn't be surprised to see Kennedy's club in Houston. Even President Obama has the Aggies advancing out of the West Region to make the Final Four.
"All season we have been hammering away to stay the course and stay together, and we would get our due respect," Kennedy said. "I think we've gotten that."
To those who support student-athletes by giving, I want to say thanks and gig 'em.
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