- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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DALLAS -- It all began in this city for Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, literally. He was born and raised in Dallas, graduating from high school in 1963, the year JFK was assassinated here.
He served time in the Marines, then went to Texas Tech and played baseball. In 1973, he started coaching the South Oak Cliff High girls' team in Dallas. It was a job not many would have wanted, but Blair saw something in the sport that captured his imagination as a certified sports junkie. He recognized what was beautiful about a sport with such growth potential.
And Tuesday, in the biggest women's basketball game ever played in Dallas, Blair saw his life come full circle: He's taking Texas A&M to the program's first women's Final Four. The No. 2 seed Aggies upset No. 1 Baylor 58-46 in an all-Big 12 battle at the Dallas Regional final.
Blair, who previously was a head coach at Stephen F. Austin and Arkansas, draws a "plus" sign in magic marker on the back of his hand before games, as a reminder to stay positive with his team. At one point late in Tuesday's game, he saw the plus had started to smudge, so he drew it again.
"I told myself, 'Baylor's going to make a run, can we answer?'" Blair said. "And I looked up in the stands, and there were so many people there. I had my old high school players there, my Stephen F. Austin players, even one of the Arkansas players was there. And it felt so good. This is where it all started for me. I love my city, right here."
There was a loud, passionate crowd of 11,508 at American Airlines Arena, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive from Baylor's campus in Waco, and 3½ hours from Texas A&M in College Station. The yellow and gold of Baylor slightly outnumbered the maroon of Texas A&M in this downtown Dallas arena. But by game's end, it was the Aggies who predominated, as they stuck around for the net-cutting celebration.
This is Blair's second Final Four as a head coach; he took Arkansas that far in 1998. Inexplicably, Arkansas decided it wanted to go a different direction and basically held the door open for Blair to leave. Texas A&M was very glad to get him for the 2003-04 season, and he has taken a program that was once the dregs of the Big 12 and led it to a chance at a national championship.
Texas A&M will meet Spokane No. 1 seed Stanford in the national semifinals in Indianapolis on Sunday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) and will try to do to the Cardinal what the Aggies did defensively to Baylor on Tuesday. Which is, essentially, shut them down with defense.
Associate head coach Vic Schaefer is the Aggies' defensive guru, and his scheme this time against Baylor and center Brittney Griner was to have Danielle Adams behind her and Tyra White in front of her.
"Tyra was tremendous helping me on Brittney," said Adams, who along with Griner was named an Associated Press first team All-American on Tuesday. "Coach Schaefer is the god of defense, and we try to make him happy every game. We don't do it often, but I'm sure he's happy tonight."
Considering this effort followed the Aggies' 79-38 semifinal victory over Georgia, yes, you could say Schaefer was pleased with those back-to-back defensive showcases.
"This is the best effort I've ever been a part of," Schaefer said. "Our kids are an intelligent group. They have a great understanding of how people want to score. So what we've done all year long, no matter what we've been in -- man or zone -- we take away how they want to score."
Baylor, which won the 2005 NCAA title and went to the Final Four last season, had defeated Texas A&M in their past eight consecutive meetings -- including three times this season by three, nine and three points. On Tuesday, though, Baylor was in trouble all game. The Lady Bears seemed short on most shots -- including a dunk attempt center Brittney Griner missed in the first half when she lost the ball as she grabbed the rim -- and nothing came easily on offense.
It was Baylor's second-lowest point total of the season, just ahead of the 45 points the Lady Bears scored in their lone Big 12 regular-season loss, at Texas Tech. Griner, who had 40 points in Baylor's regional semifinal win Sunday over Green Bay, had half that total against Texas A&M, coming on 6-of-18 shooting. Guard Melissa Jones, in her final game for Baylor, scored 13 and hit the Lady Bears' only 3-pointer of the game with just 1:32 remaining.
Baylor shot 31.3 percent from the field (15-of-48) and made just 15 of 25 free throws. The Lady Bears had 20 turnovers to seven assists. In all three previous victories this season over Texas A&M, Baylor also had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. The difference was, in those games, the Lady Bears shot the ball better.
Jones, who valiantly competed the past month despite little or no vision in her right eye, is the only senior who gets much playing time. This is a young Baylor squad, and it showed Tuesday.
"At some point, your youth surfaces," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "Some of the things we've been able to get away with through the course of [the season], you're not going to be able to get away with when you play a team four times."
Yet despite their offensive struggles, the Lady Bears were within seven points of Texas A&M with 3 minutes, 5 seconds left.
"Kim was probably over there thinking, 'They've choked every time late in the game, this is our time,'" Blair said. "But we didn't choke this time. We made the plays."
In fact, Texas A&M senior guard Sydney Colson made two huge plays in a row. She was fouled by Griner on a drive to the basket and hit both free throws. Then Colson picked off a pass for a breakaway layup on which she was fouled and converted the three-point play. That gave the Aggies a 12-point lead with 2:41 left that they did not relinquish.
The Aggies' experienced backcourt of Colson (12 points, 4 assists, 5 steals) and junior Sydney Carter (team-high 22 points) played 40 minutes apiece to lead the Aggies (31-5).
"We came out with that confidence and aggressive attitude that we normally have," Carter said. "We started like we did against them in the Big 12 [final]. But this time we kept it up."
Baylor freshman point guard Odyssey Sims had a rough game, much like what Meighan Simmons had for Tennessee in the Lady Vols' loss to Notre Dame on Monday. Both rookies were so good all season, but they struggled in the Elite Eight. Sims missed all six of her shots from the field, finishing with two points on foul shots.
"The difference in the game was guard play," said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey. "We'll get better; we had a great year."
Indeed, Baylor won the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles. But Texas A&M won the meeting between the two that mattered the most.
In 2008, Texas A&M made the Elite Eight and had a lead on Tennessee, but went cold in the final six minutes and lost. This time, the Aggies did not flounder with the Final Four in sight.
"I know Coach Blair is probably more excited than anybody," said Adams, who had just six points but made her impact more on defense. "We did this through him. We played them three times before and didn't quite get over that hump. But tonight, we gave it our all and played our hearts out."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
Baylor beat Texas A&M three times earlier this season. But riding a tough defense and outstanding guard play, the Aggies won the meeting that mattered the most to earn their first Final Four.