- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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DULUTH, Ga. -- Next time you hear somebody grumpily say today's youth is all about instant gratification, remember this Texas A&M team. Because it has some great examples of players who had to wait their turn; kids who didn't jump ship when they had to sit for a while and learn the ropes behind more experienced players.
Sunday in The Arena at The Gwinnett Center, they got a chance to celebrate as the No. 4 seed Aggies beat second-seeded Kentucky 75-67 for the SEC tournament title. In Texas A&M's first season in the SEC, the Aggies upset both Tennessee and Kentucky -- the top two seeds here -- to take home the prize.
Texas A&M is just two years removed from winning the NCAA championship. Yet the Aggies' stars of 2011 are gone. And some of the players who were on the sidelines then are the ones getting it done now for Texas A&M now.
"I'm just excited that we got the trophy," said Kristi Bellock, one of the best examples of perseverance that you will find in college hoops. "I'm excited because we did it on our own. We did it with our seniors and with Kelsey."
That's Kelsey Bone, who was named the SEC tournament's most valuable player after an 18-point, 15-rebound championship-game performance. Bone began her college career at South Carolina, then transfered back home to the Lone Star State and Texas A&M. But during Texas A&M's NCAA title season, she couldn't play because she was sitting out as a transfer. But the Aggies' move to the SEC this season meant that, improbably, Bone was back in the same league where she'd started.
"It's a storybook ending for me," said Bone, which made it sound like perhaps she's leaning toward declaring for the WNBA draft when this season ends. "I fell in love with the Southeastern Conference as a little girl. [Then] going to the Big 12, then -- boom -- I'm back here in the SEC. That doesn't happen to everybody who transfers. I'm probably the only person who can ever say that."
Or at least one of the few. With all the league-swapping that continues to happen, it might become more common. Nevertheless, it is quite a twist-and-turn tale that Bone would end up with an SEC tournament title, despite playing for a school that until this season had been in the Southwest Conference and the Big 12.
Because she's academically a senior, Bone is eligible for next month's WNBA draft. If she opts to go pro, she'll do so with -- at the very least -- some wonderful memories of this SEC tournament.
So will Bellock and fellow senior Adrienne Pratcher. Both were eligible that year, but they didn't see much playing time because there were more accomplished players ahead of them. In Bellock's case, she suffered a torn ACL that season.
Pratcher's minutes on the court increased last year, but Bellock's really didn't as she was still playing behind forward Adaora Elonu. Bellock averaged only 6.1 minutes in 2011-12. Coming into her senior year, she had totaled just 102 points and 76 rebounds in three seasons.
Contrast that to this season, when she has started all 33 games and is averaging 10.2 points and 7.4 rebounds. Sunday against the Wildcats, Bellock had 15 and eight, and was named to the all-tournament team.
"I wasn't raised to give up," Bellock said when asked why she decided to stick it out at Texas A&M despite so little playing time her first three years. "Every kid's dream coming to college is to play every game for 40 minutes. But that wasn't my reality. I loved the team and the players that were here before.
"I just knew that I was going to get my chance one of these days. And when I did, I took full advantage of it. My family always supported me and my decision to stay here; we didn't talk about leaving. And I'm so proud of myself for not giving up."
Bellock also said that playing against the likes of Elonu, Danielle Adams, Tyra White, Sydney Carter and Sydney Colson in practice helped several of the current Aggies become the competitors they are now.
And while the older players finally got the chance to shine, the Aggies also got a huge lift from their freshmen, led by starters Courtney Williams and Courtney Walker.
Those two combined for 25 points and 11 rebounds on Sunday and were key components of the Aggies' transition game. In Texas A&M's two regular-season losses to Kentucky, the Wildcats had limited the Aggies in transition.
On Sunday, Kentucky didn't do that as well, plus the Wildcats got just 13 points combined from its post duo of DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker. Guards A'dia Mathies (19 points) and Jennifer O'Neill (17) led Kentucky in scoring.
"Our post players are not at a point where they can get on the post and score," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "That is a credit to Texas A&M's defense. But I should have done a better job at this point in the season of being better able to manufacture some offense.
"We're just disappointed. We've been here [in the SEC final] three out of the last four years, [and] haven't been able to get a victory."
The Wildcats lost the tournament championship to Tennessee in both 2010 and 2011. Last year, Kentucky lost in the SEC semifinals to LSU. But the Wildcats do have two trips to the NCAA Elite Eight in that time, in 2010 and 2012. So they know they still have plenty to play for, with the NCAA tournament on the way.
So does Texas A&M. The Aggies lost four of their last five games in the regular season, but coach Gary Blair never lost confidence in them. Before the start of this tournament, he stressed to his team that nothing was wrong with them; they'd run into a tough part of the schedule and just needed to re-focus.
The Aggies did that, avenging defeats they'd suffered in that losing streak to Tennessee and Kentucky. Now, Texas A&M will await its NCAA seed; they will host the early round.
Blair spent 10 seasons at Arkansas and did not win an SEC tournament title, although he did go to a Women's Final Four. While Texas A&M was in the Big 12, the Aggies won two league tournaments, but lost in the final three of the past four years to Baylor.
Bone joked Sunday that she had told Bellock on Saturday night, "Doesn't it feel good preparing for a tournament conference final and not having to worry about Baylor?"
Perhaps down the road in the NCAA tournament, the Aggies will have to worry again about Baylor, which is playing Iowa State in Monday's Big 12 final in Dallas. But at least for a few days, Texas A&M can bask in what a success its first season in the SEC turned out to be.
"It's our first SEC championship," Blair said. "I'm happy to be a part of it. I'm in this thing not to win games, but to win championships."
12dBonnie D. Ford