It won't be a fun Christmas for the Texas A&M men's basketball team after Saturday's 53-51 loss to the Southern Jaguars, and the new year might not be any better if the Aggies don't get some things corrected.
A&M (8-3) missed seven of its last eight shots and had a turnover as the Jaguars rallied from a 49-44 deficit to win on Malcolm Miller's two free throws with 5.8 seconds left.
The Aggies had a chance to salvage a win, but freshman J'Mychal Reese missed a well-contested desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer. That ended a tough week for A&M, which had a four-game winning streak snapped in a 74-69 loss to Oklahoma last Saturday. The Aggies somewhat bounced back with a 66-54 victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Tuesday, but the 1-7 Islanders were able to close a 26-point deficit in the final 13 minutes.
Instead of things getting better against Southern, they got worse as the SWAC's Jaguars (5-6) got a rare victory over a team from a power conference that lacked power.
"Our weaknesses were exposed by Southern, and we've got to address those issues to be able to get better," A&M head coach Billy Kennedy said. "And we're not getting any better with our practices from the Oklahoma game to this game. This week of practice we didn't get any better and it showed in the game."
A&M struggled to score against a team coming off a 68-57 loss at TCU.
Reese and senior guard Elston Turner each scored 14 points on identical 6-of-11 shooting efforts, but no one else for the Aggies scored in double figures. Southern had a 22-20 edge in points in the paint with A&M grabbing only three offensive rebounds.
"I thought their toughness and their ability to score in the post and have a post presence was the difference in the game," Kennedy said. "People know our team now, and they scout it and force us to shoot jump shots or they try to take Elston away, and we really struggle scoring. We've got to have a better post presence offensively and defensively to beat teams."
Turner put A&M in position to win by scoring six straight points midway through the second half for a 49-44 Aggie lead. Southern, which missed a trio of 3-pointers while Turner was scoring, got a layup from Yondarius Johnson off a fast break started by a blocked shot by 6-foot-9 Javan Mitchell. Then Miller's 3-pointer tied the game at 49 with 2:39 left.
A&M took a 51-49 lead on Reese's 12-foot jumper with 2:11 left, but the Aggies then failed to take advantage of a Southern turnover. A&M took a timeout to set up a play, but Southern switched to a zone defense which led to an ugly turnover by junior forward Andrew Young.
"We have a play we run in our zone [offense], and obviously, we failed to run it," Kennedy said. "Andrew threw it to the top of the building at Reed, and it bounced off the backboard."
A&M's Ray Turner then fouled Miller, who hit both free throws to tie it at 51 with 40 seconds left.
The Aggies took another timeout and again had trouble getting a good shot. Southern's defense forced a slipping Elston Turner to pass the ball to Alex Caruso, who missed a jumper with 8 seconds left. Miller rebounded and was fouled by Ray Turner.
The 6-6 Miller, a jump-shooter, who came into the game having made only 6 of 10 free throws for the season, calmly completed a 5-of-5 day at the free-throw line to end a game-high 17-point effort off the bench.
Miller also had six rebounds as Southern had a 31-27 edge on the boards.
"We were able to stay with them on the boards and give ourselves a chance to win," said Southern coach Roman Banks, adding that typically his team wore down on the inside in past games.
Southern won even though A&M all but shut down its leading scorer, 6-4 senior guard Derick Beltran who came in averaging 17.3 points. Beltran was 1-of-6 shooting for three points, most times struggling against the defense of Elston Turner who played all 40 minutes.
Banks said he didn't think the Jaguars could beat the Aggies without more points from Beltran, who played 39 minutes.
"I thought our guys didn't panic," Banks said. "We have had our chances most nights to win basketball games, but tonight was the first time I actually thought we played and didn't panic. I thought we were getting to the point where we were going to panic, and I had to call a timeout and settle them down a little bit."
That was when A&M had its 49-44 lead. Southern missed two more shots, making it eight straight, but the Aggies also went cold.
It was a special victory for the Jaguars' program -- and for Banks who played at Northwestern State in Louisiana when Kennedy served as an assistant there. Kennedy later hired Banks when he took over as head coach at Southeastern Louisiana.
"He really helped me be who I am today as a basketball coach," said Banks, who hugged Kennedy's wife after the postgame press conference. "He coached me in college, and he's really been with me all my career. I have to wonder if he meant to give this one to me to help me in my career further."
Kennedy said the Aggies have work to do if they want to improve telling statistics like 3 of 6 free throws and only seven assists.
"We've got a lot of post guys on our team, yet we don't have a consistent post presence," he said. "Then we also got to get them the ball. We gotta do a better job of getting them the ball."
Elston Turner said it was a tough loss to swallow before the holiday break.
"We just weren't playing smart basketball," he said.
It was A&M's first loss at Reed Arena to a nonconference opponent with a losing record since an 80-75 loss to Texas-San Antonio on Dec. 15, 2002.
It was also a year ago to the date that Rice came to Reed Arena and won 65-58, ending A&M's 67-game home nonconference winning streak.
A&M will have time to work on things before playing Army at 4 p.m. Dec. 29, its next-to-last nonconference game before opening its maiden Southeastern Conference season.