Title completes turnaround for Aggies

By Kristie Rieken
Associated Press / April 7, 2011

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Thousands of fans packed Reed Arena yesterday to welcome the Texas A&M women’s basketball team home with its first national championship.

The band played, and a huge banner and four smaller ones declaring the winners surrounded a stage on the court. The team and coaches gathered to address the crowd a day after the 76-70 win over Notre Dame.

University president R. Bowen Loftin called it a “great day in Aggieland.’’

“This belongs to the team, but it also belongs to all Aggies,’’ he said. “It’s been a long time coming.’’

All-American Danielle Adams, who scored 30 points, received a standing ovation. She thanked Texas A&M for recruiting her out of junior college when many schools shied away because they were worried about her weight and conditioning.

“They gave me a chance and I’ve worked hard at it since Day 1 and it all paid off in the end,’’ she said. “Now we’re national champions. It’s great that they gave me the chance that I had.’’

Coach Gary Blair, who won the title in his second trip to the Final Four after leading Arkansas there in 1998, didn’t stop smiling during the almost hour-long party. He recalled a conversation he had with a fan about a week after he was hired in 2003.

“He said, ‘Everyone loves us; we’re lovable losers,’ ’’ Blair said. “I told him: ‘That’s not what I want to be a part of. I’m here to build champions.’ ’’

And on Tuesday night he did, completing a major turnaround for a team that once played in front of only close friends and family.

Athletic director Bill Byrne, who hired Blair soon after he signed on at Texas A&M, called Blair’s work remarkable.

“Last night is a precursor to more championships,’’ he said. “This is not a one-trick pony.’’

The Texas A&M football team has long drawn huge crowds to Kyle Field, but the more than 6,000 fans the women’s team averaged this season is a number that was unheard of just a few years ago.

“You see that women’s basketball isn’t all that bad,’’ a beaming Sydney Colson told the crowd. “It can be pretty good.’’

Texas A&M went 9-19 in Blair’s first season, but hasn’t had a losing record since. He has led Texas A&M to six straight NCAA Tournament appearances and this year’s 33 wins are the most in program history.

Even with a national championship on his résumé, Blair hasn’t stopped trying to drum up more support for his team. He informed revelers at the celebration that the ticket office was open and they could buy season tickets on their way out the door.

Adams looked at the crowd lined up for her autograph after the ceremony and shook her head at the number of people who came out to welcome the Aggies home.

“It’s amazing to come back and see all these fans here,’’ she said. “Just to bring home a championship to Texas A&M is an amazing feeling.’’

Adams scored 22 of her 30 points in a dominating second half against Notre Dame.

“I had a little voice in my head, ‘Don’t let this team down,’ ’’ said Adams, who was picked as the outstanding player of the tournament.

“Every time we’d get down, we were telling each other we’re not going to lose this game. We worked hard all season to prepare for this point. I had to do this for my teammates. They’ve been doing everything for me. I decided to take them on my back and just let them ride on my back.’’

Tyra White added 18 points for A&M, including a huge 3-pointer as the shot-clock buzzer sounded to put the Aggies up, 73-68, with 1:07 left.

“That was the knife in my heart. That was the game,’’ Irish coach Muffet McGraw said, bowing her head when the question was asked. “I thought that was just an amazing play on White’s part, and that play was the game.’’

Adams and her teammates then staved off a final, frantic push by the Irish and their sensational young point guard, Skylar Diggins.

Now the Aggies are national champs, newcomers who bullied their way through the tournament to win it all. Like Notre Dame, they vanquished their conference rival on the way, beating Baylor in the Dallas regional final after losing to the Lady Bears three times during the season.

Adams, who struggled badly against Baylor, was up to the task and then some against Notre Dame, scoring the second-most points ever in a championship game.

Both teams reached the championship by knocking off two No. 1 seeds. Notre Dame ended an 0-20 skid against Tennessee, then swept past Connecticut in the semifinals — the first time one team has taken down those two women’s icons in the same tournament. After A&M dumped Baylor, the Aggies knocked out Stanford in a bruising national semifinal.