Texas A&M 68, Penn 52
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Acie Law usually is “Captain Clutch” for Texas A&M. On Thursday, teammate Joseph Jones was the one who had the biggest impact with the game on the line.
Law, arguably the nation’s best point guard, needed plenty of help from Jones and others to push the third-seeded Aggies past upset-minded Penn 68-52 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Jones had two big dunks in less than a minute to lead Texas A&M (26-6), which advanced to play Louisville on Saturday at Rupp Arena. Louisville won 78-58 over Stanford.
Law led the Aggies with 20 points despite hitting only six of 15 shots. While the Quakers (22-9) found an answer for him in Ibrahim Jaaber, they couldn’t answer Texas A&M’s inside game.
Jones tied the game at 39 with a thundering dunk at the 11-minute mark, then added another dunk to give the Aggies the lead for good. He finished with a double-double—14 points, 11 rebounds.
“He did a good job on getting those two monster dunks when we didn’t have anything going,” Law said.
The timing couldn’t have been better. The 14th-seeded Quakers had just taken their only lead of the game.
“It put a spark in us and got us a run going,” Jones said. “I was just trying to be aggressive.”
For much of the second half, the tournament-tested Ivy League champions gave the Aggies a scare. Although Texas A&M had a 31-18 lead at halftime, Penn’s shooters—particularly Jaaber—came out of the break on fire.
Penn opened the half with a 21-6 run. Jaaber had a three-point play to tie the game at 37, then made a short jumper to give Penn the lead.
“We weren’t believers early and it cost us,” said Penn coach Glen Miller. “There’s little margin for error when you play Texas A&M. You’ve got to play a complete game for 40 minutes.”
Dominique Kirk also came through in the clutch for the Aggies, nailing a 3-pointer to halt a short Quaker run in the closing minutes and give his team a 10-point advantage. He finished with 16 points.
“Coach always tells me to shoot the ball, don’t worry about it,” Kirk said. “So I let it rock.”
Mark Zoller had 19 points to lead the Quakers, and Jaaber added 16.
Knowing his team was overmatched inside, Miller slowed down the tempo in the first half. He also had his team rely on the outside shot—long a forte of Texas A&M, one of the nation’s best 3-point shooting teams. But that strategy backfired.
Texas A&M made five 3s in the game, while the Quakers connected on just four and missed 16 others. The Aggies’ Josh Carter, the nation’s leader in 3-point field goal percentage, went 1-of-6 from beyond the arc.
While the Quakers did relatively well at limiting turnovers to 10, some of their early missed shots were ugly. Penn misfired on five attempted layups in the first half, including one by Darren Smith when he was all alone beneath the basket.
“When you have some open looks, especially layups, you better convert on those to stay in the game,” Miller said.
Although three Penn starters were appearing in the NCAA tournament for the third straight season, Law and the Aggies got a little seasoning of their own last year. As a No. 12 seed, they shocked fifth-seeded Syracuse in round one and nearly beat eventual Final Four team LSU in round two.
Prior to last season, Texas A&M hadn’t been in the tournament since 1987 or won a tournament game since 1980. Law, now a senior, was a freshman during one of the worst seasons in school history, when the Aggies went 0-16 in Big 12 play.
He wasn’t about to let his team depart with a first-round loss.
“We didn’t want to lose,” Law said. “We worked too hard this season to put ourselves in this situation and we didn’t want to let it go too early. We knew in our minds that we had to make plays and get back in it and it all starts with defense.”