Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ags To Riches -- PART THREE

The following in as in-depth look at the meteoric rise of the Texas A&M women’s basketball program. This 12th Man Foundation exclusive is the third in a four-part series, which will conclude on Friday. The story originally appeared in the January issue of 12th Man Magazine.


While the 2003-04 season was memorable for so many reasons, what happened just days before the year began—prior to Gary Blair coaching a single game—was perhaps even more important. A&M inked its most impressive signing class in a decade when Morenike Atunrase, Patrice Reado and LaToya Gulley signed the Aggies (A’Quonesia Franklin and Katy Pounds signed their letters of intent following the season).

The group of youngsters became immediate contributors.

Atunrase, Franklin, Reado and Pounds all played double-digit minutes in their freshmen seasons. Franklin took over for Toccara Williams at point guard and finished a remarkable third nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio despite being the only freshmen point guard in the Big 12. Atunrase more than doubled the freshman school record for blocks in a season and was the consensus Big 12 Freshman of the Year. In all, the freshmen group accounted for more than half of the team’s scoring.

Meanwhile, the Aggies finished the regular season with a 14-13 record, the school’s first plus-.500 finish since 1996, and the team received a bid to the WNIT Tournament. In the WNIT, A&M claimed wins against Tulsa and A&M-Corpus Christi before a quarterfinal loss to eventual champ Southwest Missouri State after A&M missed a game winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Clearly, A&M’s recruiting was paying off.

“The recruits believed in the style,” Blair said. “That style is what I’ve been doing every place I’ve been. It’s fun basketball—defense first, rebounding, intense defense. We looked for versatile players who can play more than one position, players who were well-coached in high school and junior college. We wanted players whose egos weren’t bigger than the team, and it’s worked out pretty well.”

The A&M staff followed its first class with another top 25 group that included Takia Starks, Danielle Gant and La Toya Micheaux. While Gant hailed from Oklahoma City, Starks and Micheaux joined Reado as elite-level prospects from the Houston area who chose to stay close to home and help build the budding program.

The Houston pipeline has certainly stayed open for the A&M coaching staff. Other current players from the hoops hotbed of Houston include Damitria Buchanan, Sydney Colson and Adaora Elonu. A&M has also made inroads in the Metroplex with current players Maryann Baker, Sydney Carter and Skylar Collins.

But regardless of where the recruits grew up, they came to A&M for the same reasons.

“I trusted the coaches when they were recruiting us,” said Starks, now a senior and a potential All-American. “The saying ‘Building Champions’ is everywhere around here, and basically, that’s what they told us when they recruited us. Everything that they have said, like the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight…it’s all coming true. I trusted the coaches when they told us that.”

In the 2005-06 season, the freshman campaign for Starks, Gant and Micheaux, the Aggies soared to a 23-9 (11-5 Big 12) record and made the school’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in a decade.

It was the following year, however, that the Aggies exploded onto the main stage. A&M started the season with previously unfathomable expectations, checking in at No. 14 in both major polls.

The Aggies were still in the top 20 when conference play began. After an opening game loss to Kansas State, the Aggies edged Texas Tech for the program’s first win in Lubbock since 1980. Three days later, No. 9 Baylor became A&M’s first ranked victim after the Aggies scored an 8-point victory. Two wins against No. 6 Oklahoma followed shortly thereafter, and a four game winning streak to close the regular season, including another victory over top-15 Baylor, landed Blair his first conference title since his days at Stephen F. Austin.

A second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth was the reward, and the Aggies wrapped the year with a No. 16 ranking in the final Associated Press poll.

To be certain, the Aggies were no longer the hunted, and the team’s crushing defensive pressure had become the talk of the Big 12. Franklin, Gant, Starks and Atunrase had all become known as some of the steadiest players in the league, and the team’s 16-0 record at Reed Arena remains the program’s only undefeated home slate in 33 years of women’s basketball.

At the time, it may have felt like the program had reached its pinnacle. As it turned out, the party was just getting started.

Before Friday’s final installment in the series, the following statistics further illustrate how far the Aggies have come:

- Versus the Big 12 South:
From 2001-03, A&M was 5-27
From 2004-08, A&M was 22-10

- Versus the Big 12 North:
From 2001-03, A&M was 5-14
From 2004-08, A&M was 18-5

- In home games (A&M was 34-38 at Reed Arena the previous five seasons):
2004 -- 7-9
2005 -- 11-5
2006 -- 14-2
2007 -- 16-0
2008 -- 14-2
2009 -- 7-1
Total -- 69-19

- Against traditional league powers Texas Tech and Texas:
From 1976-2005, Tech led the all-time series 51-13. From 2006-present, A&M is 6-1 (and has won six straight).
From 1976-2005, Texas led the all-time series 57-10. From 2006-present, A&M is 6-1 (and has won three of four in Austin).

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