Coach Gary Blair’s final appearance at Gallagher-Iba Arena, a building Blair had lost in but once before, went down to the wire for the Texas A&M Aggies.
After digging themselves into a 10-point deficit early in the second half, the defending national champions crawled back into the game one shot, one steal, one turnover at a time. A&M tied it up at 36 all with 11:54 to play with a layup by Kelsey Assarian, Blair’s “linebacker”. From that point, the game was back and forth down to the final seconds. With 44 seconds to play and the Cowgirls up by two, Oklahoma State’s own “linebacker”, Lindsey Keller, had the inbounds play bounce off her chest and give OSU their 28th and final turnover of the night.
“When we ran the inbounds play on the press break and we threw it to Lindsey and it went off her chest and went out of bounds, I thought we were in trouble,” OSU coach Jim Littell said. “But there’s just no quit to them.”
Sydney Carter sunk a shot on the ensuing A&M possession to tie the score at 53 apiece causing that trouble the coach mentioned. But you can’t be in too much trouble when you have the wheels and ability of Tiffany Bias to speed down the court for the go-ahead basket. Carter tried to make some magic of her own after a touch shooting night, but her jumper off the left side screen missed the mark with seven seconds to play.
It was only fitting that Keller, the evening’s workhorse, closed out the game with a defensive rebound and two made free throws to give the Cowgirls the ugly – but effective – win. That’s what middle linebackers do on the hardwood – just ask Coach Blair.
“She’s physical, that’s the way the Big 12 is,” Blair said after the loss. “I wish I had one as physical as she is, like a ‘Little Country’ in there.
“It’s not what she scores on the field goals, it’s the mindset that she brings to the game, the intensity, the whatever it takes type of attitude and that’s what you’ve got to do to be able to win at this level … You’ve got to have people just hard-nosed, carry your lunch pail to work, find a way to get the job done.”
The OSU upperclassman, one of only two juniors on the team, wasn’t looking for points, necessarily – though she did make seven of her nine tries at the line – she was looking to get herself a gold star for defense.
“I’ve worked on my game to be a lot more physical because some of the girls, they’re a little bigger than me,” the 6-2 Keller remarked with a smile, “and you just have to be stronger, be solid. Defense is a big part of that and as long as you can shut people down and they don’t score, if you score two points you win. I just feel like defense is a really big part of my game and if I can shut them down it’s a little star by my name.”
Blair was asked about his own linebacker, Kelsey Assarian, who hit the deck hard with 2:14 to play and came up holding her head after a few minutes on the court.
“She’s just like Keller. They’re middle linebackers, they just know how to play. Don’t worry about her. Don’t worry about Lindsey and just let them play. Those type of players is what the Big 12 is all about. It’s a very physical conference.”
Physical, indeed. Though OSU’s Littell might have another descriptor for his Cowgirls after the game.
“We’re interesting, I’ll say that. We’re interesting,” Littell shook his head as he continued to look at the final box score. “We turn it over 28 times and find a way to win. We can blow a 10 point lead quicker than anybody, but these kids are pretty resilient.
“We only got up 41 shots and you don’t usually win when you get up 41 shots and turn it over 28 times, but I thought we made a lot of good plays and we forced them into 26 turnovers as well. So I just thought the defense was outstanding tonight.”
That outstanding defensive effort by the Cowgirls was not only seen in the turnovers. A&M only connected on eight shots in the first half, with a 28.6% field goal percentage. Senior Sydney Carter could only muster seven points despite her 14 attempts from the field. She connected but twice in the game, and missed when it counted most. Adaora Elonu fouled out for the Aggies and was one of the contributors to the 21 trips to the line that OSU was able to take in the game. But good defense can also mean gritty – not pretty – basketball.
“For all those teams that want that little pretty ball, you’re not going to have that when A&M is playing or Oklahoma State’s playing because neither one of us are pretty teams,” Gary Blair said of the two foes in their first meeting of the last season. “We just get the job done and we play hard and we’re on the floor, we make decisions and that’s the way it should be.
“I’m going to hate not coming back to this place.”