Photo Credit: Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean / USA TODAY NETWORK
Preview: No. 18 Texas A&M faces Vandy, eyes return to SEC title game
No. 18 Texas A&M looks to advance to the Southeastern Conference tournament title game for the second straight year when it faces Vanderbilt in the semifinals on Saturday in Nashville.
The second-seeded Aggies (24-8) used a second-half surge to rally from a 13-point second-half deficit and pull out a 67-61 win against Arkansas on Friday. The sixth-seeded Commodores (20-13) enhanced their NCAA Tournament chances with an 80-73 victory over No. 23 Kentucky later Friday night.
The winner faces either top-seeded and fourth-ranked Alabama (27-5) or 25th-ranked and fourth-seeded Missouri (24-8) in Sunday’s title game.
The Aggies fell to Tennessee 65-50 in last year’s SEC final, costing Texas A&M a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Trailing 40-27 with 18:27 remaining, the Aggies went on a 26-11 run to take a 53-51 lead they wouldn’t relinquish on Julius Marble’s three-point play with 7:42 left.
“We just have to go 1-0 every possession,” Texas A&M forward Henry Coleman said when asked about the Aggies’ second-half mindset. “We weren’t focused on the next possession. We were focused on the possession we were in — whether that was on offense or on defense. We tried to go 1-0, and that’s what the guys did.”
The Aggies stretched the lead to 61-54 on Wade Taylor IV’s two free throws with 2:55 remaining and never looked back while winning for the ninth time in their past 10 games.
Taylor scored 18 points and Coleman added 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Aggies. Dexter Dennis and Tyrece Radford chipped in 11 points apiece.
Texas A&M out-rebounded the Razorbacks 43-26.
The Commodores continued their winning ways without SEC Defensive Player of the Year Liam Robbins, the team’s leading scorer (15 points per game), rebounder (6.8 boards per game), and shot blocker (3.2 rejections per game), who is out for the season after sustaining a leg injury against Kentucky on March 1.
On Friday, Vanderbilt opened the second half on a 13-6 run to take a 52-40 lead with 15:43 remaining.
Kentucky pulled to within 63-60 on Antonio Reeves’ two free throws with 7:02 to play, but the Commodores countered with an 8-4 run to extend their advantage to seven points on Wright’s free throw with 3:02 left.
“It is unexplainable,” said Vanderbilt guard Ezra Manjon, whose team hasn’t reached the title game since winning it in 2012. “It’s been a fight, but we have fighters. We just wanted to be aggressive and go out there and create plays.”
Manjon set a season-high with 25 points, while Tyrin Lawrence and Jordan Wright chipped in 18 points apiece for the Commodores, who have won 10 of their past 11 games.
“All year long has been a buildup with a lot of tests,” Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse said. “Once we stopped beating ourselves, we were going to turn the corner.”
Texas A&M defeated visiting Vanderbilt 72-66 in the teams’ lone regular-season meeting on Jan. 28. Coleman scored 18 points, while Radford and Taylor added 14 points apiece.
The Commodores were led by Myles Stute, who came off the bench to score 22. Wright added 15 points, and Trey Thomas contributed 13 points.
–Field Level Media