A Foul End
Texas A&M Eliminates Madison 85-69 In Round 2
COLLEGE STATION, Texas – With the first-round hurdle cleared against Gonzaga on Sunday, James Madison was up against a Texas-sized challenge to take the next step.
But Texas A&M’s No. 3 seed, a home-court advantage featuring a state logo that spanned a quarter of the court and bruising interior players weren’t even the Dukes’ biggest hurdles Tuesday night in the second round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Twenty-seven fouls hampered JMU’s ability to defend an active Aggies bunch. And, at the end, the scoreboard read: Texas A&M 85, James Madison 69.
“[The fouls] just dampened our enthusiasm and wore us out,” Madison coach Kenny Brooks said.
So the tears, like the A&M free throws, flowed in Reed Arena. Kirby Burkholder, with red eyes, fouled out in her final game; fellow senior and Turner Ashby High School graduate Nikki Newman couldn’t contain them as she hugged Brooks in the final minute. The JMU band applauded with a “Thank You, Nikki” chant.
Brooks choked up throughout his opening remarks at the post-game press conference.
“They have taken our program to a different level and I appreciate every ounce of effort, their gratitude, their love for James Madison and this program,” Brooks said of Newman and Burkholder. “I love what they have done for the future of our program because the rest of the kids on our team have had two of the greatest leaders to follow.”
For A&M (26-8), it was just another March win. The Aggies won the national title in 2011 and are one of just five programs to win an NCAA tournament game in nine straight seasons.
This was new territory for James Madison (29-6), though, which hadn’t won a first-round game since 1991 before beating Gonzaga on Sunday. For 20 minutes, that couldn’t have mattered less, as the two squads tangoed in a free-flowing 47-43 affair that probably was as good as any half in this year’s NCAA tournament.
“It was really entertaining for everyone else, but for coaches who want to see some defense, it was stressful,” Brooks said.
The stress only mounted. Texas A&M poured in buckets on six of its first seven second-half possessions and an 8-0 run eventually doomed the Dukes after they cut a healthy deficit to 73-66 with 6:15 to play.
It was a game both wholly appropriate for and strangely out of touch with JMU’s season. It was just the second double-digit defeat of the season and the second, period, since Jan. 2.
When the Dukes have lost, it’s been without their typically stout defense. In four of their six defeats, foes scored at least 79 points. The 85 surrendered to A&M tied for the most JMU allowed in regulation this season.
Then again, it’s hard to defend when the fouls pile up.
Newman missed the first half after picking up three fouls in the first 11 minutes, two of them picked up on a double-foul sequence that included a technical foul.
Texas A&M scored six points on that possession, flipping control of the game and JMU’s four-point advantage into a lead the Aggies never relinquished.
It only got worse from there, as Toia Giggetts, Burkholder and Lauren Okafor all had four fouls by the midpoint of the second half.
“[The foul trouble] handcuffed us,” Brooks said. “For the majority of the game, I felt like I was managing playing time and trying to keep kids fresh. We played zone way more than I wanted to.”
A&M sliced through that zone with efficiency, making 50 percent of its shots and coercing more whistles to the tune of 37 free-throw attempts. Karla Gilbert and Courtney Williams combined for 43 points and 21 rebounds as the Aggies won the battle on the glass.
And the Dukes, who had kept pace with their own prolific first half, found little room around the rim against a fresher and taller Aggies bunch.
Burkholder especially found open looks hard to come by. She was just 1-of-6 beyond the arc, but managed 20 points and 10 rebounds for her second straight double-double. Still, her shooting touch was off in College Station, as she shot just 9-of-31 from the field in two tournament games.
“That takes nothing away from Kirby’s career,” a tearful Newman emphasized after the game. “She was still getting to the free-throw line, grabbing rebounds and being a leader. That’s exactly how she should be remembered.”
Burkholder, the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year, found a silver lining in the program’s accomplishments this season.
“One of the most unselfish teams I’ve played with,” she said. “Winning our conference regular season and tournament and the first-round game — those mean something.
“It’s hard right now, but it was a special season with some special girls.”
Brooks said the whole team envisioned a Sweet 16 berth this season and thought it was within reach with 20 minutes to play Tuesday night.
His team just reached too much for the refs’ — and the A&M crowd’s — liking. But it was that effort, Brooks said, that made this year special.
“I am so proud of them,” Brooks stressed. “They represented our university to the utmost all year long. It was probably the best season I’ve had as a coach.”