COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M coach Gary Blair gave the Aggies (No. 9 ESPN/USA Today, No. 10 AP) an eight-day break for the holidays, the most time off he's ever given a team.
He regretted the decision as he watched his team struggle on Friday night before finally putting away scrappy McNeese State in a 72-62 win.
"I did a poor job of preparation," Blair said. "I did a poor job giving the kids eight days off thinking our kids needed it ... it was nice to be with your family, but you have to get back to work."
Tyra White scored 19 points and Kelsey Bone added 19 points and 15 rebounds in the victory.
Twin sisters Ashlyn and Caitlyn Baggett combined for 37 points for McNeese State in a rematch of the first round of last year's NCAA tournament.
A&M (9-2) got a 40-point win in that one on the way to its first national title. But this time the Cowgirls led in the second half and stuck around for most of the game.
"Give the Baggett kids a lot of credit," Blair said. "They know how to use their body and we know how to jump into them and foul them. They played outstanding. We could not stop their dribble penetration."
The Aggies led by seven points before a 3-pointer by Caitlyn Baggett got McNeese State (9-4) within 58-54 with about three minutes remaining. A 3-point play by Alexia Standish started a 6-1 run by A&M to extend the lead to 64-55 and the Aggies held on for the win.
White had a tough night despite leading the team in scoring. She made just six of her 20 shots, but was helped by hitting seven of 11 at the line.
The Aggies had a clear height advantage, but struggled to deal with McNeese State's quickness and aggressiveness. It didn't help that Texas A&M was playing without starting guard Sydney Carter, who is averaging almost 11 points this season. Carter, who normally plays 33 minutes a game, missed the game with a left foot injury.
Blair said X-rays on Carter's foot were negative, but that he isn't sure how long she'll be out.
White said it was tough to get going on offense without Carter on the floor.
"We had to look at each other for the offense," White said.
Ashlyn Baggett led the team with 19 points and Caitlyn Baggett added 18. The sisters made two 3-pointers apiece.
McNeese State opened the second half with a 10-4 run to take a 34-30 lead with about 16 minutes left. Candace LaCombe made a pair of 3-pointers in that span. A third 3 by LaCombe put McNeese on top 37-36 a couple of minutes later.
Texas A&M regained the lead on a pair of free throws by White soon after that and the Cowgirls didn't lead again.
A turnover by A&M led to a fastbreak layup by Martika Hull that cut A&M's lead to 3 with about seven minutes left. The Aggies scored five points in a row after that to push the lead to 57-49 two minutes later.
The Aggies outrebounded McNeese 53-31, but the Cowgirls were able to stay in it in because they made seven 3-pointers while A&M didn't make any. Texas A&M was helped by making 28 free throws.
"I'm in charge of the offense and right now the offense isn't working," Blair said. "We'll keep working. Do I sound down? Because I am down, because that was not very entertaining for the fans."
McNeese State won the Southland Conference tournament last season to get its first NCAA tournament berth. The Cowgirls are favored to win their league again, but have dropped consecutive games to top-10 opponents after losing 90-50 to top-ranked Baylor in their last game.
Still, McNeese State was encouraged by how much better it performed on Friday than in the last meeting with A&M.
"What a huge improvement from seven or eight months ago," McNeese State coach Brooks Donald Williams said. "We're real proud of the strides our program is making. We're excited about where we're going."
The Aggies were up by eight in the first half before McNeese State went on a 15-4 run, powered by 3-pointers by both the Baggett twins, to take a 24-21 lead. Texas A&M missed nine shots and had five turnovers in that span.
Karla Gilbert layup with about 1 1/2 left in the first half left A&M ahead 26-24 at halftime.
It was the last nonconference game for Texas A&M, which opens its last season of Big 12 play on Wednesday at Kansas State. The Cowgirls play Wiley College on Tuesday before starting Southland Conference competition against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Jan. 7.