Texas A&M waited until late to put the Broncs from Texas-Pan American away, giving the season-high 5,280 fans a few anxious moments.
The Aggie players weren’t as worried, believing they could pull away as they finally did for a 63-46 victory Saturday at Reed Arena.
“I’m pretty sure our team, we were confident we were going to win, but it was just a matter of when we were going to sit down and actually do it,” said sophomore guard Alex Caruso. “Once we started boxing out and got the ball and were able to run, we didn’t let them set up in their zone. That let us extend the lead a little bit. It was like we finally cracked them, their motion offense was tough running off all the screens. Anything you can think of as a screen they ran it.”
With the win, A&M will go into Wednesday’s Southeastern Conference opener at home against Arkansas with a 9-4 mark. UTPA fell to 4-12 after scoring just three points in the final 11 minutes, 14 seconds.
The Aggies held the lead throughout, but the Broncs’ Hurley Johnson sank two free throws to close the gap to 46-43 and a possession later would have tied it if Justin Leathers’ 3 had dropped.
It proved to be the Broncs’ last-ditch effort at handing the Aggies a second straight loss at home to an underdog.
Davonte Fitzgerald followed his own miss of a 3-pointer and sank a jumper, and then made three of four free throws before fellow sub Shawn Smith sank a 3 to put the Aggies up 55-44.
“Pan American has lost games, but nobody has been able to put them away with the way they are hard to guard with motion,” A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “Just keep level headed and keep confident. We are a young team that lost a couple of games, couldn’t score, lost a player in the last couple of weeks, lot of adversity. So they hung together, didn’t panic, made a couple of plays, Shawn [Smith] had big plays.”
Smith’s 3 was one of seven by the Aggies, who bettered their total over the last two outings from long range. Smith also had five rebounds, one of which he sprinted past most everyone and then found Jamal Jones for a fast-break dunk that closed the door at 59-44 with 3:32 left.
“We’re scrappy that way [keeping the game close] or the other teams don’t give us enough [credit] and think they are going to kill us,” UTPA coach Dan Hipsher said. “Thing we couldn’t do tonight was get to the rim. They took that away and living on jump shots, well you’ve seen our percentage.”
UTPA was shooting 40 percent coming in, but with good ball movement and four 3s from Leathers, hovered close to 50 percent until the final 10 minutes when only one made basket dropped their percentage to 33 for the game.
Senior Fabyon Harris, who had 24 starts last season in his first year at A&M, got his first start of the season and made an impact immediately with two 3s in the first six minutes to help the Aggies jump out to a 15-7 lead.
“It felt good to start and knock down two 3s and it gave me confidence to help the team win tonight,” Harris said. “I found out [I’d start] the other day in practice because he put me on maroon squad and coach [Glynn Cyprien] said we are going to put you in the starting lineup, just be aggressive and look for your shot.”
Harris finished with 10 points and three assists in a season-high 30 minutes.
“Looked at a team with one guy who has averaged double figures in Division I basketball and it’s Fabyon, so throw him on the floor and speed up the tempo of game and I thought that helped,” Kennedy said. “I thought he was excited about it and he’s getting his confidence back.”
Jamal Jones led the Aggies in scoring with 16. He hit his first 3 and then went through a drought, finishing 2 for 8 from behind the arc. He also had six rebounds.
Caruso filled up the stat sheet with 13 points on 5 of 6 shooting, six assists, three blocks (matching a career high) and four steals.
“Alex continues to share the ball, needs to cut down on a couple of plays, but he had an outstanding game,” Kennedy said. “Fabyon and Shawn [Smith] pushed the ball well at the end.”
Kourtney Roberson, the Aggies leading scorer at 11.9 a game, was held scoreless. He took only two shots a game after having only two points. Roberson helped the Aggies control the boards with 10 (eight in the first half), but he also had three turnovers as the Broncs double-teamed any Aggie who got the ball inside.
We had no post presence offensively,” Kennedy said. “[Roberson] did a great job on the glass for us. We need him to be more aggressive. He’s got to want the ball. We want him to be more than a role player and he’s capable.”
The Aggies held UTPA’s leading scorer Javorn Farrell, who averages 16 a game, to two points.
Hipsher credited the Aggies for the defense they played but put some of the blame on Farrell for making bad decisions with the ball and not hitting the few open jumpers he had.
Leathers led the Broncs with 13 points and seven rebounds. He came in averaging six and five, respectively.