Texas A&M’s Casas chases his Olympic swimming dream

Aggies backstroke specialist Shaine Casas, a rising senior from McAllen, has emerged as a contender to make the U.S. Olympic team. – Photo By Ikeah Roque/Texas A&M Athletics

By Jerry Briggs
Special report, for The JB Replay

This time last year, Texas A&M swimmer Shaine Casas had a good feeling about his chances of making the U.S. Olympic team.

Even with all the uncertainty brought on by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the former grade-school-age prodigy with the McAllen Swim Club and prep star at McAllen High School knew what he had to do to get himself ready.

Shaine Casas is expected to swim both the 100- and the 200-meter backstrokes at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha. — Photo, courtesy Texas A&M

Then, when officials made the decision to push the Tokyo Games back by a year, Casas just shrugged and tried to re-set mentally.

“Initially, whenever it first happened, it’s frustration and kind of like disappointment, because I felt confident in the way I was swimming,” Casas said in a zoom conference on Monday afternoon. “I thought I had a great shot, regardless. But, in hindsight, looking at it, I realized that it gave me more time.

“It just gave me more time to take out the guess-work … And now I can be confident and sure in myself that I can make the team, and that I’ve taken basically every opportunity to do it.

“So, I guess I’m satisfied that I get this other chance, a year later, even though, obviously, I would have loved to (have been) an Olympian a year ago. But if I can make it next week, you know, that will still be worth the wait.”

Casas, one of the fastest-rising stars in American swimming, will get his chance when the second and final phase of the Olympic Trials opens Sunday and runs through June 20 in Omaha, Nebraska.

How good is he?

In a testament to his versatility and athleticism, the rising senior at A&M has qualified for eight events, including the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle, the 100 and 200 butterfly, the 100 and 200 backstroke, and the 200 individual medley.

“He could swim any of those, which is pretty incredible by itself,” Aggies coach Jay Holmes said. “But the way the order of events is (laid out), we really have to choose. And so, the 100- and the 200-back are the ones we know he’s going to be in, at least right now, as of today.

“We do have some options, but in the order of events, the 200 IM and the 200 back are almost impossible to do together. Ryan Lochte’s done it in the trials before, but he’s incredibly seasoned. We know Shaine is capable of doing that double.

“But also, we feel like we really need to choose the best places for him to make the team.

Casas recently won three individual gold medals — in the 100- and 200-backstroke and the 200 individual medley — at the NCAA championships. — Photo, courtesy Texas A&M

“Also, you have prelims, semifinals and finals, so the 100 and 200 back are the only ones we know of. I doubt he is going to try to double the 200 IM and the 200 back. You just have to be so elite. To do that back to back, with very little rest (in between), is crazy almost.”

With the 100 and 200 backstrokes dominated by 2016 Olympic gold medalist Ryan Murphy and several others who are among the fastest in the world, Casas will face the ultimate test of his readiness. Only two athletes will make the Olympic team in what are considered his strongest events.

Even so, Olympic swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines said he thinks Casas can make the team.

“If I was a betting man, I definitely would not bet against Shaine Casas,” Gaines said after Casas won three events at the NCAA Championships earlier this year. “There’s just no way I would bet against that. I think he’s going to make it in one or two events.”

Born in San Diego, Calif., Casas moved with his family to South Texas, where he took up the sport as a grade-schooler in the McAllen Swim Club.

Former MSC coach Roxanne Balducci said in a telephone interview that, from her recollection, Casas started with her team at about age eight and continued through 14.

Shaine Casas of the McAllen Swim Club, from a photo taken in either 2010 and 2011, when he was in grade school. — Photo, courtesy MSC

“He came so many times a week because he was also into basketball at the time,” said Balducci, who lives in Florida. “So, he would swim some days, go to basketball some days. Either come to swimming late or leave swimming early to go to basketball, because that was his other love, and he just kept getting better and better.

“He went to (state competition in) TAGS, at 12-14 (and) then he made the Southern Zone team. He was just very strong for his age. You know, it took a while to build up his strokes. But once he did that, he just took off.”

His rise was rapid. In 2017, Casas took second place in a couple of events at the Class 6A state meet for McAllen High School. A little more than a year later, he was swimming on scholarship at Texas A&M.

By the summer of 2019, Casas really turned heads, winning a title in the 100-meter backstroke at the Phillips 66 Summer Nationals. He also placed second in the 200 back and the 200 IM.

The pandemic set him back, but only briefly, because he more than made up for lost time in March when he won three individual titles for the Aggies at the NCAA meet.

Given his body of work, Casas has seriously challenged the notion that swimmers from the Valley can’t compete at the highest level. Balducci acknowledged that it is rare for the RGV to produce a swimmer like Casas.

“Unfortunately, yes,” she said. “You know, it would be nice if we had the same type of facilities that other places in the state had, or other places in the country. But, you know, if you are determined enough, if you have got that little extra spark, nothing will stop you.

“You have stories like (former three-time Olympian) Ian Crocker. He came from somewhere in New England, from a four-lane pool. If you’ve got what it takes, and you’re willing to put in the effort, it can be done. I agree. It is rare. It would be nice if it happened a little more often.”

Shaine Casas (front row, third from right) holds a ‘hot ‘n spicy’ spirit sign and poses with teammates on the McAllen Swim Club. — Photo, courtesy MSC.

Hector Becerra, who lives in the Valley and manages the McAllen Swim Club today, said Casas’ rise in stature can only help an area hard hit by the virus over the past year.

“We’re rooting for him,” Becerra said. “The fact that somebody from our area is at that level, is really exciting for us. If he were to make the Olympic team, it would just … it would generate a lot of buzz, a lot of interest for us down here.

“Not to mention it would really stir a lot of enthusiasm in a lot of our (club) kids. Coming out of a pandemic … I can’t think of any way better to lift the spirits of our South Texas region, than to have him make the team.”

Likewise, the A&M program could use a boost in its battle with Texas for the top swimmers in the state. Guided by outgoing coach Eddie Reese, UT has long held the upper hand, in terms of dominance in college men’s swimming.

If Casas can make some noise next week, perhaps young athletes will start to look at the Aggies differently.

“Shaine is just one of those rare talents,” Holmes said. “I’ve certainly never coached anyone like him, as versatile as he is. For us, it’s fun to coach him, because you can put him in almost any situation and he’s going to be trying to figure out ways to win it.

“He’s very confident. He always has been very confident, even coming out of McAllen. McAllen has had some swimmers go D-I before. But, coming out of McAllen with the times he had, and being able to do the things he was doing, already, we thought he could be pretty special.

“He’s a fun guy to coach. You could put him in almost any situation, and he really believes he can beat just about anybody, anytime, in almost anything.”

Casas said he feels more confident in himself now than this time last year.

“I have more high competition experience,” he said. “Going into it last year, my biggest meet was (2019) nationals, and that was more of a light year. You know there was not too many superstars there. So it was just me, doing my thing, and I was able to win.

“ … Now having the NCAA championship, and winning at the biggest stage collegiately, I think that gave me confidence at practice, racing at a high level, that I needed for this meet.”

Going into the NCAA meet in North Carolina a few months ago, Casas was expected to win, and he delivered with victories in the 100 back, the 200 back and the 200 IM. He said if he hadn’t been able to pull that off, he might have felt more unease going into the Trials.

Asked pointedly what gives him the confidence that he will shine the brightest “with the lights as bright as they’re going to be,” Casas didn’t hesitate in delivering his answer.

“That’s just what I do,” he said. “That’s what I train to do. It’s what I plan to do. I visualize doing that, so … “ Casas didn’t finish the thought, but he did continue to address what the meet means to him in the big picture.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “I’ve been talking about this for years. Like, whenever I won nationals and I entered kind of the room for discussion about possible Olympians or medalists … you know, I had been preparing for that and planning for that, and that motivated me every single day at practice.

“I want to make it. I want to do well. I want to represent the U.S. So, I’m excited to hopefully enter the new stage of my life where people know who I am, and my name becomes an international name, and I’m not just a kid, swimming at Texas A&M.

“Maybe,” he added, “I’m the guy that swam for Team USA and did well.”

Olympic Trials schedule
June 13-20, at Omaha, Nebraska
Eye on Shaine Casas
Men’s 100 backstroke — Preliminaries in the morning and semifinals at night, on Monday, June 14. Finals on Tuesday night, June 15.
Men’s 200 backstroke — Preliminaries in the morning and semifinals at night on Thursday, June 17. Finals on Friday, June 18.

McAllen Swim Club director Hector Becerra on Shaine Casas: ‘Coming out of a pandemic … I can’t think of any way better to lift the spirits of our South Texas region, than to have him make the (U.S. Olympic) team.’

Chanclas’ smallest player earns a major-college ticket to Texas A&M

In 2019, Jordan Thompson hit .310 in 25 games as a freshman at the University of the Incarnate Word. Notably, he belted a three-run homer to lead UIW’s 6-5 victory at Texas A&M – Photo, courtesy of UIW athletics.

Competing to win a starting job in the outfield for the Flying Chanclas de San Antonio, Jordan Thompson paused Friday night to discuss what the fans might expect when a 30-game Texas Collegiate League season starts next week.

“I think we’re going to be really good,” Thompson said. “I know it’s only been a couple of days, but after what I’ve seen from the pitchers and the hitters (this week), our team looks really, really good. I know that our pitchers are going to be throwing a lot of strikes … and I know that our hitters are going to be more than ready.”

From all indications, Thompson could play a major role despite his physical stature (5-feet-9, 165 pounds) as the smallest player on the squad. He is coming off a spring in which he hit .435 for Grayson College, earning an offer to play next season at Texas A&M.

“I think this summer’s really going to help me develop as a player, because of our coaching staff,” Thompson said. “They’ve had so much experience at the professional level. It just gives me an opportunity to pick their brains and learn what I have to do to better myself, to (reach) the next level.

“And our team, it just has a lot of talent on it. (I want to) just pick their brains, too. Because there’s obviously a reason where they are. You can always learn a lot of things from a lot of people, different perspectives. It’ll just be really good getting that from everyone else.”

In 2018, as a senior at Boerne Champion, Thompson hit .548 and earned first-team, all-state honors in Class 5A.

Judged as too small by some major college recruiters, he accepted an offer to play as a freshman at the University of the Incarnate Word, where he made headlines early in the spring with a three-run home run to beat A&M at College Station.

But just as Thompson started to make substantial progress with the Cardinals, hitting at a .310 clip over the first 25 games, he suffered a painful back injury that knocked him out for the season.

Later that year, in the summer, Thompson was confronted with another bit of adversity when Pat Hallmark resigned as UIW’s coach to take a job at UTSA.

The ball player decided he, too, would leave.

Thompson turned up for the 2020 season at Grayson, a powerful junior college program located in Denison, about 70 miles north of the Dallas-Fort Worth MetroPlex.

Intent on proving himself, he jump all over the baseball, pounding out 27 hits in 62 at bats in 19 games.

Of those hits, six went for doubles, two for triples and five for home runs. He also drove in 21 runs in the coronavirus-shortened season, prompting the Aggies to come calling.

Thompson, who will enroll at A&M in the fall, said “it feels great” to get the scholarship to a Southeastern Conference program.

“My journey to get there was a little unconventional, but it’s my journey, and I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he said. “Going from UIW, a coaching staff change, leaving to go to Grayson, then going on to Texas A&M, I love my story. I’m just really excited to be where I want to be. It’s every kid’s dream to go to a Power 5 conference, Texas A&M especially.”

Even though he humbled the Aggies with his mighty swing for UIW two seasons ago and ripped five more over the fence at Grayson, Thompson’s game revolves more around hitting for average and then running the bases aggressively.

“I think that’s real big (in my game),” he said. “The presence of speed on the bases … will speed up the pitcher’s head. They always have to worry about you on first base, second base. There’s a lot of problems you can create with speed.”

To illustrate his point, Thompson, who hits from the right side, said he singled into left field once earlier this spring against Ranger Junior College. He said he took advantage when he noticed that the fielder was playing the ball with a “lackadaisical” effort.

“I just decided to go for a double,” he said. “It caused a little problem. They were all frantic. And, just got into their heads.”

It’s a style that should mesh with Chanclas manager John McLaren’s philosophy of pushing the pace in a game. Thompson said he thinks he will enjoy playing that style, under McLaren, a former manager with the Seattle Mariners and Washington Nationals.

“I like to put pressure on people, because some people can’t take the pressure,” he said. “Some people will just fold underneath it. I love the pressure and I embrace it. I use it to help drive me through games and practice. Being aggressive, that’s just how I am.”

No. 3 Gonzaga wallops Texas A&M, 94-71

Third-ranked Gonzaga allowed Texas A&M to stay in the game for the first 14 minutes and then rolled to an easy 94-71 victory Thursday night in front of a rowdy crowd at the McCarthey Center in Spokane, Washington.

In the first home game for Gonzaga against a team from the Southeastern Conference, the Bulldogs overwhelmed the Aggies by shooting 49.2 percent from the field while forcing 14 turnovers and blocking 10 shots.

Guard Zach Norvell scored 22 points to lead Gonzaga, a team that reached the NCAA title game in 2017 and the round of 16 last season. Forward Rui Hachimura produced 18 points and seven rebounds.

Savion Flagg scored 18 and T.J. Starks 16 for A&M.

Both teams entered the game with key players sidelined. Forward Killian Tillie is out for Gonzaga with a leg injury. Guard Admon Gilder did not make the trip for A&M because of unspecified health issues.

Gilder out indefinitely

A&M senior guard Admon Gilder will be out indefinitely due to health issues, according to a story posted on texags.com.

Gilder will remain in Texas for further evaluation while the Aggies travel to Washington and Vancouver in the coming week.

“I’m grateful for our medical team at Texas A&M. They are working diligently to get Admon back to the court as soon as possible, but his overall well-being is our priority,” head coach Billy Kennedy said.

Gilder said he is disappointed that he can’t be with the team this week.

“I understand that my health is important and that resolving this successfully will allow me to continue to pursue basketball for years to come,” he said. “I will overcome with God’s help, for I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”

Texas A&M routs second-seeded North Carolina, 86-65

Texas A&M played championship-level basketball Sunday in routing the second-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels 86-65 in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32.

In a game played in Tar Heels country at Charlotte, the seventh-seeded Aggies bolted to a 14-point lead at intermission and boosted it to 24 with 13 minutes left.

A&M cruised the rest of the way, ousting the defending NCAA champions from the tournament behind the likes of TJ Starks, Tyler Davis, DJ Hogg and Robert Williams III.

As a result, A&M (22-12) of the Southeastern Conference will advance to take on third-seeded Big Ten power Michigan (30-7) in the Round of 16 on Thursday in Los Angeles.

Individual leaders

Aggies — Starks (21 points), Davis (18 points, 9 rebounds), Hogg (14 points, 8 rebounds), Admon Gilder (12 points), Williams (8 points, 13 rebounds).

Tar Heels — Joel Berry (21 points), Luke Maye (13 points, 11 rebounds)

Quotable
(From Texas A&M’s athletics website)

“Great win, great team win. I thought we got a performance from everybody. I thought once we slowed them up in transition and our zone gave them some problems.” — A&M head coach Billy Kennedy

A&M forward Tyler Davis — “We just stuck to our game plan and played to our strengths. We know we have the advantage on the inside against most teams. So we just did what we do every day — go to war on the inside and eat glass.”

Two from Texas in Sweet 16

Over the past 48 hours, two teams from the state of Texas have advanced to the Sweet 16. Texas Tech will play Purdue in Boston on Friday. The Red Raiders of the Big 12 edged the Florida Gators 69-66 on Saturday in Dallas.

Round of 32 at a glance

Weekend scores
x-Saturday’s games
y-Sunday’s games

South

y-(9) Kansas State beat (16) UMBC, 50-43
x-(5) Kentucky beat (13) Buffalo, 95-75

x-(11) Loyola-Chicago beat (3) Tennessee, 63-62
y-(7) Nevada beat (2) Cincinnati, 75-73

West

(1) Xavier vs. (9) Florida State, Sunday, 7:45 p.m., TNT
x-(4) Gonzaga beat (5) Ohio State, 90-84

x-(3) Michigan beat (6) Houston, 64-63
y-(7) Texas A&M beat (2) North Carolina, 86-65

East

x-(1) Villanova beat (9) Alabama, 81-58
(5) West Virginia vs. (13) Marshall, Sunday, 8:40 p.m., TBS

x-(3) Texas Tech beat (6) Florida, 69-66
y-(2) Purdue beat (10) Butler, 76-73

Midwest

x-(1) Kansas beat (8) Seton Hall, 83-79
y-(5) Clemson beat (4) Auburn, 84-53

y-(11) Syracuse beat (3) Michigan State, 55-53
x-(2) Duke beat (7) Rhode Island, 87-62

Kansas State stops UMBC

The ninth-seeded Kansas State Wildcats forged a 50-43 victory over the history-making, No. 16 UMBC Retrievers in a Round of 32 game at Charlotte Sunday night.

Barry Brown scored 18 for Sweet 16-bound Kansas State. K-State will take on Kentucky in the South regional semifinals Thursday in Atlanta.

UMBC’s season is over, but it won’t soon be forgotten.

The Retrievers became the first No. 16 seed to advance to the second round after they walloped top-seeded Virginia 74-54 Friday night.

Against Kansas State, UMBC couldn’t sustain anything on offense, shooting only 29 percent. Jairus Lyles led Retrievers with 12 points.

Nevada races past Cincinnati

The seventh-seeded Nevada Wolf Pack erased a 22-point deficit in the final 11 minutes Sunday to stun No. 2 Cincinnati, 75-73, at Nashville.

Cincinnati led 65-43 with 10:48 remaining before Nevada mounted its second comeback in three days.

The Wolf Pack trailed by 14 early in the second half Friday before rallying past the Texas Longhorns, 87-83, in overtime.

Asked what the two comebacks say about his team, Nevada coach Eric Musselman said, “Just a lot of heart, a lot of determination and no quit.”

Syracuse upsets Michigan State

Eleventh-seeded Syracuse held No. 3 Michigan State without a field goal in the final 5:43 Sunday to register a stunning 55-53 victory in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

In the game played at Detroit, the Syracuse zone defense completely flustered the Spartans and lifted the Orange into the Sweet 16.

Syracuse’s NCAA opponents: field goal shooting
Arizona State — 21 of 52
TCU — 19 of 48
Michigan State — 17 of 66

Clemson rips Auburn

Gabe DeVoe scored 22 points and fifth-seeded Clemson romped past No. 4 Auburn 84-53 at San Diego in the West region. Clemson held Auburn to 25.8 percent shooting in the rout.

Purdue downs Butler

Second-seeded Purdue beat No. 10 Butler 76-73 Sunday at Detroit in an East Region second-round game, setting up a Sweet 16 matchup Friday in Boston against Texas Tech.

Senior forward Vincent Edwards led the Boilermakers with 20 points and added a key blocked shot in the final minute.

History: 16th-seeded UMBC ousts No. 1 Virginia

Maryland-Baltimore County recorded perhaps the greatest upset in college basketball history Friday night, knocking off Virginia 74-54 in a Round-of-64, South Region game at the NCAA Tournament.

Registering the victory at Charlotte, North Carolina, UMBC became the first No. 16 seed to oust a No. 1.

The Retrievers, who are led by second-year head coach Ryan Odom, pulled off the shocker in style at Spectrum Center.

They outscored the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament 53-33 in the second half, running away from the defense-minded champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Coming in, Virginia had held opponents to an average of 53.4 points a game.

Senior guard Jairus Lyles scored 28 points to lead the Retreivers, who raced off the floor with raised fingers pointing toward the sky, according to the Associated Press.

“These are the moments that you dream of,” Lyles said.

UMBC advanced to play in the Round of 32 on Sunday against ninth-seeded Kansas State of the Big 12 conference.

Earlier in the day, Kansas State beat Creighton, 69-59, a game that was also held in Charlotte.

Meanwhile, two other tournament heavyweights survived scares.

Third-seeded Michigan State, buoyed by Miles Bridges’ 29 points and 9 rebounds, held off Bucknell 82-78 in the West Region at Detroit.

Also, Mustapha Heron scored 16 as No. 4 Auburn beat the College of Charleston 62-58 in the Midwest at San Diego.

Here’s a recap of the R-64 results, including scores of games played on Thursday.

NCAA Round of 64

South

* (16) UMBC beat (1) Virginia, 74-54
* (9) Kansas State beat (8) Creighton, 69-59
* (5) Kentucky beat (12) Davidson, 78-73
* (13) Buffalo beat (4) Arizona, 89-68
* (11) Loyola-Chicago beat (6) Miami, Fla., 64-62
* (3) Tennessee beat (14) Wright State, 73-47
* (7) Nevada beat (10) Texas, 87-83, overtime
* (2) Cincinnati beat (15) Georgia State, 68-53

West

* (1) Xavier beat (16) Texas Southern, 102-83
* (9) Florida State beat (8) Missouri, 67-54
* (5) Ohio State beat (12) South Dakota State, 81-73
* (4) Gonzaga beat (13) UNC-Greensboro, 68-64
* (6) Houston beat (11) San Diego State, 67-65
* (3) Michigan beat (14) Montana, 61-47
* (7) Texas A&M beat (10) Providence, 73-69
* (2) North Carolina beat (15) Lipscomb, 84-66

East

* (1) Villanova beat (16) Radford, 87-61
* (9) Alabama beat (8) Virginia Tech, 86-63
* (5) West Virginia beat (12) Murray State, 85-68
* (13) Marshall beat (4) Wichita State, 81-75
* (6) Florida beat (11) St. Bonaventure, 77-62
* (3) Texas Tech beat (14) Stephen F. Austin, 70-60
* (10) Butler beat (7) Arkansas, 79-62
* (2) Purdue beat (15) Cal-State Fullerton, 74-48

Midwest

* (1) Kansas beat (16) Penn, 76-60
* (8) Seton Hall beat (9) N. Carolina State, 94-83
* (5) Clemson beat (12) New Mexico State, 79-68
* (4) Auburn beat (13) College of Charleston, 62-58
* (11) Syracuse beat (6) TCU, 57-52
* (3) Michigan State beat (14) Bucknell, 82-78
* (7) Rhode Island beat (10) Oklahoma, 83-78
* (2) Duke beat (15) Iona, 89-67

Selection Sunday is two weeks away, so, who’s in?

With two weeks remaining until Selection Sunday, here are the Texas-based teams projected into the NCAA tournament by Jerry Palm of cbssports.com:

(3) Texas Tech, in the South, at Dallas
(6) TCU, in the East, at Dallas
(7) Houston, in the West, at Pittsburgh
(9) Texas A&M, in the South, at Charlotte
(12) Texas, in the East, at Dayton (R-68)

Note: Texas is projected to play in the round of 68 and the others in the round of 64.

Mississippi State deals Texas A&M third straight loss

Mississippi State played with a purpose Tuesday night and recorded a convincing, 93-81 Southeastern Conference victory over the Texas A&M Aggies.

The Bulldogs led for the final 33 minutes in what was regarded as their best road win of the year.

It was also their first road win in history at College Station.

The Aggies, meanwhile, have lost three straight.

Perhaps of more concern, the Aggies have yielded more than 90 points twice in a row, giving up 94 points to the Arkansas Razorbacks last weekend and now 93 to the Bulldogs.

Against the Bulldogs, the Aggies shot 50.8 percent from the field but were out-rebounded 44-31, including 16-7 on the offensive glass.

Mississippi State forward Abdul Ado and guard Quinndary Weatherspoon gave A&M fits with four offensive rebounds apiece.

Ado, a redshirt freshman, finished with 19 points and nine rebounds. Weatherspoon had 17 points, six boards and five assists.

A&M forward Tyler Davis led the home team with 25 points and 11 rebounds.

Records

Texas A&M 17-11, 6-9
Mississippi State 20-8, 8-7

Quotable

“Obviously, we are disappointed in the loss and disappointed in giving up … back-to-back games with 94 and 93 points,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said, in statements posted on the Aggies’ website. “We lost our defensive identity for whatever reason.

“We are struggling to make the tough play on the defensive end of the floor, and that is my responsibility. I have to do a better job of getting us prepared to play on the defensive end.

“I am not taking anything away from Mississippi State. Their guards were hard to defend, and we couldn’t keep them out of the lane. Their athleticism really gave us a lot of problems, and they have a good team.”

Coming up

Texas A&M at Vanderbilt, Saturday
South Carolina at Mississippi State, Saturday

Worthy of a highlight reel: A&M upsets No. 8 Auburn

After a poor start in Southeastern Conference play, Texas A&M has won three in a row to bolster its NCAA tournament hopes.

The Aggies knocked off the eighth-ranked Auburn Tigers 81-80 on the road Wednesday night.

Troubled with injuries, A&M (16-8, 5-6) lost the first five games on its SEC schedule.

But the Aggies won at home last week against Arkansas and South Carolina and now have won on the home floor of the first-place team in the conference.

With a little more than a month remaining before NCAA Selection Sunday, A&M appears to be in good shape.

The Aggies are 20th in the nation in the latest ratings percentage index and are projected as a No. 9 tournament seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.

A&M hosts Kentucky on 24th-ranked Kentucky on Saturday at Reed Arena.

Starks leads Texas A&M past Arkansas, 80-66

Freshman point guard T.J. Starks hit four 3-point baskets and scored 16 points Tuesday night as Texas A&M beat Arkansas 80-66 in Southeastern Conference basketball.

Playing at home in College Station, the Aggies broke open a close game and snapped a two-game losing streak by outscoring the Razorbacks 47-34 in the second half.

Starks, from Lancaster, hit 4 of 5 from long distance in making his second straight start.

Center Tyler Davis produced 15 points and 13 rebounds, including 11 on the offensive glass.

Daryl Macon scored 20 off the bench to lead the Hogs, who had won three in a row.

Records

Texas A&M: 14-8, 3-6
Arkansas: 15-7, 4-5

Texas A&M ends skid by defeating Ole Miss, 71-69

When a three-point shot left the hand of Ole Miss guard Breein Tyree, it looked good.

It looked good on the way up, and on the way down, and then something strange happened.

Texas A&M finally caught a break.

Tyree’s jumper from 28 feet circled the rim and came out at the buzzer Tuesday night as A&M broke a five-game losing streak, holding on for a 71-69 victory at Reed Arena.

“It went in and out,” Texas A&M center Tyler Davis told the SEC Network. “Thanks to God, it (came) out.”

Davis and Robert Williams combined for 38 points and 21 rebounds as A&M (12-6, 1-5 in the SEC) won for the first time since beating Buffalo at home on Dec. 21.

Bruce Stevens contributed 20 points and nine rebounds for Ole Miss (10-8, 3-3).

Back before Christmas, in the wake of the victory over Buffalo, A&M had won 11 of its first 12 and had climbed to No. 5 in the Associated Press Top 25.

Since then, misfortune shadowed the Aggies through losses to Alabama, Florida, LSU, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Losses to LSU and Kentucky were by one point each, so the victory over Ole Miss felt good.

The Aggies played extremely well in the first half, shooting 61 percent while surging into a 45-37 lead at intermission.

Not to be deterred, the Rebels rallied with their hustle in the first portion of the second half, coming back and over-taking the Aggies.

Ole Miss came from behind to assume four-point leads three times, the last time at 58-54 with 7:15 remaining on a Stevens jumper in the key.

From there, Williams and Davis took over.

Williams, in particular, was brilliant down the stretch with four dunks and a couple of blocked shots.

In the end, it was Davis with a hustle play for the game-winning point.

He spun inside, missed, rebounded the shot and followed it in with 23 seconds to play.

Ole Miss missed two three-pointers in the final nine seconds.

The first was by Terence Davis out of the corner, but the Rebels maintained possession when the rebound went out of bounds off the Aggies.

On the last play, Ole Miss guard Deandre Burnett faced up from the top of the three-point circle, but he was guarded too closely for a shot attempt.

Burnett elected to pitch it back to Tyree, who was open on a longer jumper that rimmed out to give A&M its first victory of the season in a game decided by three points or less.

“I was praying that it would bounce out,” A&M coach Billy Kennedy said in comments posted to the athletic department website. “God blessed us with a good bounce, the right bounce. That’s how good this league is.

“Every game is going to come down to making free throws and tough plays at the end.”

The Aggies were 0-3 in those games up until Tuesday night.

A&M players expressed relief to get the first SEC victory of the season.

“It is a blessing honestly,” Williams said. “I have been praying on it a lot. I feel like we are getting our team back and starting to get it back to where it needs to be.

“We just have to slow it down on the turnovers.”

A&M welcomed back guard Duane Wilson, who hurt his knee in the SEC opener at Alabama.

It was the first time that the Aggies, hit by suspensions, injuries and illnesses, had been able to play with all the players they had hoped to use coming into conference play.

Even with everyone healthy for A&M, Ole Miss nearly pulled it out at the end.

“I did not necessarily want three, but I felt as if for us it was probably such a defensive factor,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “I thought our guys did a good job of executing and making the extra pass.

“We had a guy with a clean look and unfortunately for us it just didn’t go in.”