For three-fourths of Thursday's game, a seasoned but inexplicably jittery Texas A&M didn't look like it was playing Pennsylvania in the NCAA tournament's first round.
More like Prairie View A&M in the Aggies' season opener. In an eventual 68-52 victory over the Quakers before 20,816 fans in Rupp Arena, the uptight Aggies threw away passes. They missed free throws. And failed to finish plays.
Finally, during a break in the action and with Penn leading 39-37 in the second half, A&M guard Acie Law and coach Billy Gillispie huddled for a quick conference.
When the powwow broke, Law patted Gillispie on the back — a reversal of the norm, and a quick reminder that everything was going to be all right. It was, despite a rockier than expected ride, as third-seeded A&M (26-6) outscored Penn 13-4 over the next seven minutes to finally shove away the 14th-seeded Quakers (22-9).
"We didn't want to lose," said Law, who led the Aggies with 20 points but made just 6 of 15 shots. "We've worked too hard to put ourselves in this situation — and we didn't want to let that go."
All along, the Aggies hoped to peak during the NCAA tournament. If they're to do so, they'll need to start climbing in a hurry, with surging Louisville waiting in Rupp on Saturday.
The Saturday winner advances to the South Regional in San Antonio. A&M hasn't played in the Sweet 16 since 1980.
Texas Tech ready to go fishing …
It was as if Texas Tech was bored with the event.
The Red Raiders didn't fight. They didn't scratch. They certainly didn't win.
Even Tech's normally boisterous coach Bob Knight was reserved as his squad was ousted from the NCAA Tournament after an 84-75 loss to Boston College on Thursday at Joel Coliseum in first-round play at the East Regional.
The Eagles' brash point guard Tyrese Rice — recognized by Knight as the key to Boston College's almost flawless offensive execution — said he and his teammates squashed the Red Raiders' will to win.
Knight, who became the all-time leader in men's college basketball victories this season, was asked if he was considering retiring after this, his 41st season as a head coach. He said no.
But as if he knew this team wasn't capable of doing much in the Tournament, he mentioned that Thursday morning he and his staff discussed things they could do with the returning players and the incoming recruiting class.
"I think we're going to be able to do some things with the kids we have coming in that are really intriguing and really interesting," he said. "I'm still going fishing tomorrow."
Down goes Duke …
Eric Maynor made the shot that lifted Virginia Commonwealth and sank Duke.. For the first time since 1996, the second round of the N.C.A.A. tournament will not include Duke.
In Chuck Morgan voice: Batting 5th, Sammy Sosa …
On one hand, the scene was pure slapstick -- someone telling Sammy Sosa that he had made the team.
Five hundred eighty-eight home runs and there was uncertainty?
Yet after a poor season in Baltimore in 2005 and a year out of baseball in 2006, Sosa was in the position of having to prove himself.
And he has. It might be only spring, but Sosa has been impressive enough for the
Rangers to guarantee him a spot on the 25-man roster. They did that Thursday, although they did not officially make the move to add him to the 40-man roster because they would have been required to release another player.
Sosa was told that he had made the team in the clubhouse after he had three at-bats in the Rangers' 15-12 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and everyone present recognized how absurd it seemed. But no one more than Sosa, who folded his hands, looked skyward and said: "Thank you, Lord."
And then he laughed loudly.
That Sosa was told in Tucson was an added touch of humor. Veterans often skip the 300-mile round trip from the Rangers' spring camp in Surprise. Only a few of the regulars came here Thursday. When Sosa was with the Cubs, they trained in Mesa, which is also a long trip. Sosa was asked how long it had been since he had been required to come to Tucson, and he laughed and said: "It's been awhile."
For the spring, Sosa is hitting .452 (14-for-31) with three home runs, seven RBI, two doubles and a triple.
"I still have a lot to do," Sosa said. "This doesn't mean that I can slow down. [Forget] that."
If it continues, Sosa's revival could provide a rocket boost for the Rangers. While it is true that he hit .221 with 14 home runs in 2005 at Baltimore, one year earlier when he was 35, he hit 35 home runs and knocked in 80 runs for the Cubs.
Sosa, 38, will hit in the fifth spot behind Mark Teixeira, who likely will see far better pitches to hit with the threat of Sosa behind him.
Gagne getting closer …
Reliever Wes Littleton's eyes were wide in amazement as closer Eric Gagne walked off the field after getting three straight outs, including two strikeouts, in a Triple-A game Thursday.
"Did you see that change-up?" Littleton said. "That was a Bugs Bunny pitch. The thing comes at you, and then plop, it's straight down."
Littleton wasn't the only one impressed. Manager Ron Washington sat in his golf cart behind home plate outside one of the Rangers' back fields and smiled as Gagne showed off his change-up, curve and fastball.
Gagne threw 14 pitches – 10 of them strikes – against three Kansas City Royals minor leaguers in his one inning of work. The radar gun clocked only one fastball, but that one hit 91 mph.
"I was a lot more controlled pitcher than last time," said Gagne, who threw 11 pitches in his first outing against hitters Monday. He is taking it slow as he returns from arm and back surgeries that have sidelined him most of the last two seasons.
"I was going about 80-85 percent. I threw hard last time, and I was a little sore the next day. So I backed off instead of going all out. It was a harder ball and crisper [Thursday]. I feel good."
Gagne said he was particularly pleased with the change-up, which entered the strike zone at the knees and then dropped. He was able to throw his curve for strikes, something he didn't do Monday.
"I wanted to see him throw strikes and see him use all his pitches, and he did that," Washington said. "He's progressing just the way we wanted. He gets better every time he pitches."
Stars win again …and they are starting to look difficult to play…
The victory helped give the Stars a little separation from the Flames, who are falling out of the pack in the lower group of playoff teams in the Western Conference. Dallas moved to 42-23-5, good for 89 points and fifth place. Calgary fell to 37-24-10 (84 points) and is in eighth place. Dallas has won four straight, while the Flames are just 1-3-1 in their last five games.
"These games feel like playoff games," said Stars defenseman Darryl Sydor. "They're obviously really fighting for the points, and so are we, so you get a game with a lot of energy."
Both teams engaged in skirmishes, and while there were no fighting majors handed out, there were three roughing penalties, and Calgary goalie Jamie McLennan was hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and 10-minute misconduct.
That kind of play allowed the Stars to take eight power plays in the game. They scored on two of the man advantages and added another goal one second after a power play had expired.
While the Flames, who went 1-for-6 on their power plays, didn't complain about the
officiating, Calgary coach Jim Playfair thought officials were wrong to be so hard on McLennan.
"The game has to be played with emotion," he said. "I thought the call was a mistake."
On the Stars' end of the ice, Marty Turco was exceptional in stopping 30 shots. He has allowed two goals or fewer (in a game of 57 minutes or more) on 33 occasions this season and improved to 32-18-4. He also moved his record against Canadian teams to 36-10-2 since he became the Stars' No. 1 goalie in 2002-03.
"I felt good and saw the puck well," Turco said. "We hadn't seen a playoff contending team in a while, so we came firing from the start."
Sydor said Turco is showing his top game.
"Some people want to concentrate on the negative with Marty, and they just don't see all of the things he does," Sydor said. "He's not concentrating on the negative; he's moving forward and getting himself ready."
Dallas was missing nine players with injuries, including such lineup stalwarts as Jeff Halpern, Mattias Norstrom and Brenden Morrow. All three could return to play Saturday when the Stars travel to Nashville to take on the team they would meet in the first round of the playoffs if the postseason started today. And the Stars are looking more like they are getting ready for those kinds of games.
Scot Pollard with a joke …
Cleveland Cavaliers center Scot Pollard looked into the camera during a recent game and said, "Hey kids, do drugs."
Pollard was sitting on the bench in street clothes when he made the remark during a 20-second timeout Sunday against Indiana. The Cavaliers didn't find it funny.
"We have spoken with Scot and certainly do not condone his actions," general manager Danny Ferry said in a statement Wednesday. "He regrets his mistake, using inappropriate humor, particularly when he has always been very involved in the community, projecting positive messages to our youth. We will handle the issue internally."
"It was a bad joke," Pollard said in Thursday editions of The Plain Dealer. "That's all it boils down to. There are a number of things people could say about it, but it just turned out it was a bad joke. Obviously, I don't believe that."
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