CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For much of this year, the Texas A&M basketball season played out like a long tease. The Aggies started 11-1, with the lone defeat to Arizona. They peaked in December, rising as high as No. 5 in the country in the Associated Press poll.
From there, Texas A&M became a paragon of frustration and fascination, losing seven of nine from late December to late January and fizzling from a Final Four hopeful to a middling and undistinguished NCAA tournament participant. A perfect storm of injuries, suspensions and an improved SEC cast a pall of skepticism over Texas A&M if they could ever rekindle the mojo they’d shown in the early season.
A perfect storm of a different kind arrived with a flourish on Sunday afternoon in Charlotte. Texas A&M shoved around UNC in its own backyard, taking the Tar Heels’ lunch money before sending them home, 86-65, as the first No. 2 seed to be vanquished in the NCAA tournament. Texas A&M will play No. 3 Michigan in the Sweet 16.
With 5:48 remaining in the second half, A&M star forward Robert Williams put an exclamation point on the victory with a windmill dunk on a breakaway. The already stunned partisan crowd remained in silence, with a small sliver of A&M fans celebrating manically.
A crowd at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte preparing to see history later in afternoon with No. 16 UMBC playing in the first second-round game in NCAA tournament history by that seed ended up seeing an epically bad performance by UNC instead.
After back-to-back seasons of playing in the national title game, North Carolina went home with a whimper in 2018. No. 7 Texas A&M led most of the game and never was legitimately threatened in the second half.
North Carolina kept on shooting 3-pointers, finishing the game an abysmal 6-of-31. UNC was 1 for 13 in the first half and trailed 42-28. The Tar Heels never found any semblance of rhythm or run to make a legitimate push at making it a game, as A&M shredded UNC’s press and shot 51.7 percent for the game. UNC turned the ball over just six times, as A&M’s length and strength forced it into poor shooting.
In what amounted to a road game, A&M proved unbowed by a crowd that was 80 percent pro-Carolina. Led by 6-foot-10 forward Tyler Davis (18 points) and a potential first-round pick in Williams (13 rebounds), A&M dominated the paint, blocked eight shots and toyed with Carolina.
Junior forward Luke Maye looked overmatched and outclassed in the paint. The brilliant careers of UNC seniors Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson, who’d led the Tar Heels to the national title last year and a runner-up in 2016, faded to black quicker than anyone could have expected.
With just over a minute remain, screams of “THANK YOU THEO!” and “THANK YOU JOEL!” came from the North Carolina contingent.
Texas A&M showed what can happen with its talented roster when continuity meets consistency. Spitfire guard T.J. Starks played wild at times, but never looked in awe of the moment.
The physical mismatch maybe was best epitomized by one statistic: Texas A&M finished the game with eight blocks, while UNC had zero. Twice during the second half, Davis blocked Maye in the paint. After one, he let out a primal scream that reverberated through the stunned silence of the area. Davis was the best player on the floor for A&M, as the junior from Plano, Texas, had his 18 points on nine shots, three blocks and nine rebounds.
UNC had come into the NCAA with momentum and a seemingly manageable trip to the Final Four. That began with what amounted to essentially two home games here before going out West for the Sweet 16. With skepticism shrouding No. 1 Xavier, the West’s top seed, UNC had been a trendy pick for the Final Four and beyond.
But after a dreadful, flat and hapless performance here against Texas A&M, UNC will return to its backyard for the offseason.
For Texas A&M, the Aggies showed the reasons why they’d risen so high in November and December. Their sheer physical dominance, Starks’ motor and a line of tall trees in the frontline will make them a menacing matchup for anyone.
Texas A&M’s flashes of potential became a cruel reality for North Carolina. And all those primal screams after blocks and dunks will reverberate through the state for days to come.
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