SPOKANE, Wash. - Friday afternoon Texas A&M joined Pittsburgh, who knocked off Oakland earlier in the day, as the only college basketball program in the nation with at least one win in the NCAA tournament in five consecutive seasons. Despite being a popular upset pick in the first round it seemed rather easy as the South's fifth seed marched into the second round past 12th-seeded Utah State.
A&M (24-9) looked tense at the outset, but then two back-to-back 3-pointers from freshman Khris Middleton seemed to lighten the mood amongst the Aggies, and A&M opened up a double digit lead that it would allow within 10 only once on its way to a 69-53 over Utah State (27-8) win at the Spokane Arena.
And even though getting to the second round in each of the last two years puts A&M in an exclusive company of two, Turgeon isn't satisfied.
"It means a lot to us and Pittsburgh, but it doesn't mean a lot to other people. We want to go further. We want to advance," said A&M head coach Mark Turgeon. "Thirty-two is nice and to win the first round game, especially sitting around. You ask the guys worrying about being up, I was a nervous wreck thinking about how the games went yesterday and I know how good some of the teams are that lost. But it's a great accomplishment."
Utah State headed into Friday's first round matchup as the nation's second-best 3-point shooting team, but it was Middleton and A&M junior guard B.J. Holmes that lit up the scoreboard from the arc. Middleton went 4-4 from the perimeter in the first half and was 5-6 from outside for the game on his way to a career-high 19 points.
Holmes shot 3-5 from outside to score 11 points in the win. A&M shot 8-18 from outside, 44-percent, for the game. Utah State, meanwhile, shot 23-percent (5-21) from the perimeter.
"We made shots and Khris got hot. Khris is capable. He hasn't shot the ball great all year and the last month he started to shoot it well. He just gets better every time he plays," Turgeon said. "We expect B.J. to make every shot so we got some good looks and we really moved the ball well against their zone. We worked on zone offensive every day this week."
Middleton and Holmes led four Aggies in double figures with sophomore forward David Loubeau adding 14 points and six rebounds while senior Donald Sloan had just 10 points and never made it to the free throw line, yet the Aggies still cruised to a 16-point victory.
"I'm just feeling real confident," Middleton said. "I'm shooting the ball knowing it's going to go in. If I miss the previous one just shoot the next one and think it's going to go in."
The Aggies raced out to a seven-point lead after Middleton drilled two 3-pointers on consecutive trips down the court after coming out of a timeout. A&M came out of the gates sluggish and trailed 5-4 at the first media timeout.
It would be the only time A&M trailed all day.
"I thought our guys were overly excited. We hadn't played in a week and this is the most important tournament that there is, so guys wanted to do real well," Sloan said. "We came out with a few butterflies in our stomachs. Having to face that in that timeout everyone relaxed and realized it was just another day in the gym. You're sitting in the hotel all day and you're watching all these other teams playing and going back and forth, back and forth. After all the games we watched yesterday besides maybe a few teams had a comfortable lead. When Khris hit those 3s it gave us a comfortable lead in the beginning instead of trading baskets like we saw all day yesterday. Guys just let out that air like, 'Whew.'"
A&M was able to fight off foul trouble to Loubeau and Bryan Davis, both of which picked up two fouls in the game's first 10 minutes, to build a 42-29 lead at halftime. It seemed that no matter what Utah State would throw A&M's way in the half, whether it was man defense, a 3-2 zone, a 2-3 zone or a matchup zone, A&M knew just how to beat it.
Utah State was able to put together an 11-4 run in the second half to cut the lead to seven, but that's as close as USU would get as A&M answered by reeling off eight straight points to open up a 15-point lead and effectively end any hope of a Utah State comeback.
"I don't think that our guys gave in and quit playing. I think Texas A&M just physically dominated us. They are strong, big and well-coached," said Utah State head coach Stew Morrill. "You know one thing I will say, they have a zero knucklehead factor. Sometimes we can have a chance to gain a little advantage if we play a team that has the knucklehead factor, they don't. And that's a credit to Mark and the job he's doing and the caliber of kids that they have because there was none of that."
A&M will face fourth-seeded Purdue who knocked off No. 13 seed Siena, 72-64, in Friday's first game at the Spokane Arena. The Aggies and Boilermakers will tip off at approximately 4:10 p.m. CDT.