Texas A&M defeats Tennessee 68-63 inside a packed Reed Arena to earn their 13th victory in SEC play

No. 25 Texas A&M (21-7, 13-2 SEC) entered Tuesday night’s Top 25 matchup vs. the visiting 11th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers (20-8, 9-6 SEC) as confident as any team can be in the latter half of the regular season, knowing that 12,989 fans in Reed Arena for the first time this year would put the 12th Man in full effect. With their only SEC losses coming on the road against Kentucky and Arkansas, a win against a proven contender like the Volunteers would not only increase their chances of winning a conference title but further bolster their NCAA Tournament resume.

In a game that was again defined by defense, rebounding, and all-out toughness on the floor for 40 minutes, Texas A&M defeated Tennessee 68-63 behind 25 points from Wade Taylor IV’s heroic effort, reaching 13-2 in the SEC and are only half a game behind Alabama for the top spot in the conference, and earned their 6th Quad 1 victory this season.

Combined with Taylor’s 25-point and 4-steal outing, forward Julius Marble had one his highest point totals of the season with 21 points and 9 rebounds, and while the Aggies only shot 39% from the field, they went 28-34 (82%) from the free throw line, including 16-17 from Taylor which ultimately sealed the game in the final seconds for the maroon and white. Even though they were outrebounded 35-32, the team’s 11 offensive rebounds proved to be crucial late in the game, preventing Tennessee from extra possessions.

The Volunteers struggled from the 3-point line due to Texas A&M’s shut-down perimeter defense, yet hit 40% of their shots from the field, and were led by Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeilger 14 points each, while senior forward Oliver Nkamhoua recorded 13 points on the night.

Texas A&M was either over-adrenalized or ill-prepared to start the game, as Tennesee went on a quick 7-0 run where the Aggies for 0-3 from the field, having to regroup in an early timeout from by Head coach Buzz Williams. After trailing 9-2 with over fifteen minutes remaining, the Aggies went on their own 10-4 run behind guard Wade Taylor IV and forward Julius Marble, only trailing 13-10 at the 10:35 mark. Well, it was quickly realized that momentum would not last for either team, as Tennesee stole it back with another 6-2 run, where sloppy offensive sets doomed the Aggies near the basket, still trailing 21-14 at the 7:15 mark.

Albeit their poor play on offense, Texas A&M stuck with their aggressive approach on defense to limit Tennesses’s perimeter looks, though their success in the paint proved to be more of an issue while shooting 45% from the field, and outrebounding the Aggies 16-9. Needing another special performance from Wade Taylor IV, the sophomore took it upon himself to bring the Aggies back within one possession, scoring five points from the free throw line, but without a Robin to his Batman-like Dexter Dennis had been in the last two games, the point differential grew once again, with Tennessee leading 27-21 with just under four minutes left in the first.

Aggies forward Andersson Garcia hit his first 3-pointer of the season to bring the Aggies within three, while the team went on a 10-2 run to close the half, culminating with Andre Gordon’s go-ahead three-pointer with 0.51 seconds remaining. However, after a miscue and a Wade Taylor turnover, Tennessee’s Tobe Awake hit an easy layup as time expired to tie the game at 31 all, cutting into Texas A&M’s retaken momentum.

One positive from the first half was Texas A&M’s success at getting to the free throw line late, shooting 83%, including 8-8 from Wade Taylor IV. At the half, the Aggies only shot 33% from the field and 3-point territory but did hold Tennesee to only 20% from deep. Wade Taylor IV led the team with 15 points, followed by Julius Marbles’ 8 points and 4 rebounds.

HALFTIME: Texas A&M: 31. Tennessee: 31.

As Reed Arena continued to set decibel records, Head coach Buzz Williams decided that in order for the Aggies to break through the wall of one of the toughest defenses in the country, continuing to penetrate the paint and get to the free throw line was the chosen strategy, and man oh man did it work to perfection. With six fouls in a three-minute span to start the second half, Texas A&M shot 14-17 from the stripe and found themselves in the bonus after six minutes of play at the 14:04 mark.

Executing their offensive sets at a much better rate, the Aggies went on a 13-5 run with 12:56 left to lead 46-41, while the Volunteers struggled mightily on offense, going 1 for 8 from the field in said time span. Foul trouble crept its way into the Aggie’s starting lineup, as Julius Marble, Henry Coleman III, Dexter Dennis, Wade Taylor IV, and Tyrece Radford all had three fouls with just over 10 minutes remaining, meaning that cooler heads on defense needed to prevail in order to prevent potential chaos on the floor.

The Aggies allowed Tennessee back in the game, leading 57-56 with 6:52 left, Santiago Vescovi’s 12 points and 4 three-pointers led the Volunteers to a 12-5 run, consistently finding open shots with Texas A&M’s defense playing softer than usual due to the foul situation. Needing a jolt on offense, Buzz Williams called a timeout with just over four minutes left, hoping that his team had one more run left in them to take back control of the game. After a Wade Taylor layup, Julius Marble went 1-2 from the free throw line to briefly extend the lead, and as the crowd became anxious during every Tennessee possession, Volunteers guard Zakai Zeigler hit a 3-pointer at the 2:20 mark, making it 62-61 in the Aggies slight favor.

Holding on for dear life to their one-point lead, Julius Marble was fouled on a shot attempt after the Aggies rebounded Wade Taylor’s missed three-point attempt, hitting both attempts (24 made on the night) to take a 64-61 lead with just 0.46 seconds left. After a lengthy review on a rebound attempt that gave the ball back to Tennessee, Zakai Zeigler hit a layup with 0.25 seconds remaining, Wade Taylor IV was fouled after stealing back Tennesees’ initial steal on the inbound, hitting both hit free throws to get the lead back to three at 66-63. On Tennessee’s next possession, the Aggie defense stepped up in the biggest moment of the game, resulting in a three-point miss from Zakai Zeilger due to Dexter Dennis’s huge defensive stop on the attempt with just 3.5 seconds to go.

The Volunteers proceeded to foul Wade Taylor, who ended the game in storybook-like fashion with two more free throws to send the Fightin’ Texas Aggies to a 68-63 season-defining victory that will surely send every last doubter into permanent hiding because this team is the real deal heading into March.

Refraining from the overused “it doesn’t get any easier from here”, Texas A&M will be back on the road to visit Mississippi State on Saturday inside Humphrey Coliseum, knowing that any challenge they face going forward will never be too large to overcome after what they’ve accomplished in the last two months.

Texas A&M vs. Mississippi State is slated for Saturday, Feb. 25th at 2:30 PM CT. and will air on the SEC Network.

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Story originally appeared on Aggies Wire