NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)The Texas A&M Aggies are a win away from finishing off a rebound few saw coming in mid-December.
After starting the season 6-5 with losses to Murray State, Colorado and Memphis, the Aggies are back in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game for a second straight year.
Wade Taylor IV scored 25 points as No. 18 Texas A&M dominated from the opening tip in beating Vanderbilt 87-75 Saturday to put the Aggies back in the SEC Tournament final for the third time in program history.
“It’s a blessing,” Taylor said of getting back to the SEC tourney final. “We worked very hard to get back to this point. On December 25th, being 6-5, nobody thought we would be here. A blessing. We just got to complete the job.”
The Aggies (25-8) were routed by Tennessee last season in Tampa and lost in overtime to Kentucky in 2016 in Nashville.
Tyrece Radford added 16 points and Julius Marble had 13 for the Aggies, who won their fourth straight.
Now they will try to beat No. 4 Alabama, a 72-61 winner over No. 25 Missouri in the first semifinal, for the second time in nine days. The Aggies beat Alabama 67-61 to wrap the regular season March 4.
“Just another chance to make history,” Taylor said of the rematch.
Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams said Alabama’s success speaks for itself.
“The No. 1 seed, for sure. Are they the No. 1 No. 1?” Williams said. “I don’t know. You’d have to ask whoever is on the committee this year.”
Vanderbilt (20-14) reached the SEC semifinals for the first time since 2017 and was looking for its first berth in the tournament title game since 2012. That’s when the Commodores upset eventual national champion Kentucky.
Tyrin Lawrence led Vanderbilt with 18 points. Jordan Wright had 17, and Ezra Manjon 16.
These sixth-seeded Commodores came in having played the late game each of the past two nights, including an 80-73 upset of No. 23 Kentucky on Friday night to notch the program’s first 20-win season since 2014-15.
The quick turnaround took a toll on Vanderbilt, which had won 10 of its last 11 looking for its third SEC Tournament title. Coach Jerry Stackhouse said the Aggies also hit them with “a haymaker” early, but he was proud of how his Commodores fought back.
“We got back into the game after being down big,” Stackhouse said. “I think that’s the sign of a good team, the sign of a team that could do something special with the opportunity on the one-and-out format.”
Texas A&M, which beat Vanderbilt 72-66 on Jan. 28 in College Station, forced three turnovers in the first two minutes. The Aggies scored the first seven points and never looked back.
They led 49-25 at halftime, setting a program record for points in the first half at the SEC tourney. The Aggies pushed that to 52-25 on a Taylor jumper with 18:25 to go.
Vanderbilt refused to go away. The Commodores, who had won three straight over Top 25 teams for the first time since 2010-11, fought back with a 21-6 run. Wright capped the run with seven straight, and his free throw with 13:08 pulled the Dores within 58-46.
Taylor scored the next five for the Aggies, who quickly pushed the lead back to 21.
BIG PICTURE Vanderbilt: The Commodores just couldn’t slow down the Aggies, and the 3-point shots that have bailed them out so often this season didn’t fall. They were 4 of 12 in the first half and finished 64.3% overall in the second half (18 of 28).
Texas A&M: The Aggies couldn’t have shot much better over the first 20 minutes, hitting 69% (20 of 29) overall and 58.3% from 3-point range (7 of 12). They finished 59.6% (31 of 52) for the game.
Vanderbilt waits to see if its season continues in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT. The Commodores played the nation’s 19th-toughest schedule with the SEC’s fourth-most games against Quad 1 and 2 teams at 20. They also played Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky twice during the regular season.
“Yeah, we belong in the NCAA Tournament,” Stackhouse said. “Ain’t no doubt in my mind about that.”
Texas A&M faces Alabama hoping the third time in the SEC Tournament championship game is the charm.
AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25