When the opposing team makes 13-of-22 shots from three, you just chalk it up as a loss that didn’t go your way. But when a defeat coincides with your first NCAA Tournament appearance in five seasons, it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.
That was the reality for No. 7 seed Texas A&M, who was sent home early by No. 10 Penn State in the opening round of March Madness. After plenty of momentum heading into their first tournament action since 2018, the Maroon and White were brought down to earth by a spectacular shooting performance from the Nittany Lions.
The Aggies understood they had the size advantage early on, and they flexed their strength with a hot start from Julius Marble. The big man went 3-for-3 from the paint to start the game, propelling A&M to an early 9-5 lead within the first couple of minutes. Dexter Dennis added to the highlight reel from the start with an emphatic chase-down block, giving the Lions fits early on.
But Penn State hung around thanks to their sharpshooting from deep. Guard Andrew Funk, who shot 40% from three in the regular season, was on fire in the first half as he went 3-for-4 from beyond the arc. His touch helped bolster the Lions to an 11-3 run midway through the first period.
It didn’t help that guard Wade Taylor IV was slow to find his footing out the gate. The Aggies’ leading scorer started out 1-for-5 from the floor, with two turnovers and two early fouls that sent him to the bench earlier than preferred.
A late Marble basket helped stop a 17-3 Lions run, followed by a big three-pointer from Radford to try and stop the bleeding. But in reality, A&M was just hoping to hang around in the closing moments of the first half. Everything that could go wrong essentially did for A&M.
On the other end, Penn State carried all the momentum into halftime, led by their red-hot shooting from the floor, and in particular from deep.
Texas A&M leaders at the half: Julius Marble (8 points, 4-7 field goals), and Tyrece Radford (6 points, 2-5 three-pointers). Team: 32% from the field. 27.3% (3-11) from 3-point, 3-5 from the free throw line, and 15 rebounds.
Penn State leaders at the half: Andrew Funk (15 points, 4-5 three-pointers), and Jalen Pickett (9 points, 6 assists). Team: 54.2% from the field. 66.7% (6-9) from 3-point, 6-7 from the free throw line, and 13 rebounds.
HALFTIME: Texas A&M: 22, Penn State: 38
The Aggies have prided themselves this season on their ability to weather the storm, overcome adversity, and recoup. But when the basketball gods aren’t in your favor there’s not much you can do.
The Lions’ hot shooting in the first half was an impressive feat, but even they managed to take it to another level in the final 20 minutes. The second half may as well have been named “The Andrew Funk show” as the fifth-year guard finished an absurd 8-for-10 from deep.
Penn State as a team shot 13-for-22 from three. When a team is on a heater like that, they’re essentially playing with house money. It felt like the Lions could do no wrong in this opening-round matchup.
Unfortunately for the Aggies, when down by double-digits it essentially forces them to stray away from their identity of overpowering their opponents in the paint while generating offense from turnovers.
Perhaps A&M could’ve trimmed the deficit with better shooting from three, but that was clearly a weakness for the team through the regular season. The Aggies would finish just 6-for-23 from three.
The 76-59 final score is tough to swallow, but it should not take away from all that this team has accomplished. A&M was hung out to dry after a 6-5 start to the year, and they ended the season with their first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years.
The Aggies are building something legitimate with this basketball team under Buzz Williams. Take this as another step towards building the type of consistency that is fundamental to the college basketball programs that sustain long-term success.
Tonight’s loss will ultimately prove to be a growing pain amidst that larger goal.