March 20, 2009

(AP) - During the longest streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances in Texas A&M history, the Aggies have advanced further than they did the previous year each time.

To keep their hopes of continuing that pattern alive this weekend, they'll need to defeat an Evansville team playing its best basketball of the season.

The second-seeded Aggies look to avoid an upset when they meet the streaking 15th-seeded Purple Aces in a first-round matchup Sunday in South Bend.

Texas A&M (25-7) had made only two NCAA tournament appearances before its current run of four in a row. After losing in the first round in 2006, the Aggies won one game before bowing out in 2007. They followed that with a trip to the regional semifinals last spring, falling to eventual champion Tennessee.

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair sounded confident his team could advance at least that far this March after the Aggies lost 72-63 to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament championship game Sunday.

"We learned our lesson," Blair said after Texas A&M's title defense fell short. "... This team is going to dance a long way in the NCAA tournament."

To do so, Texas A&M - ranked ninth in the country - will need to avoid a letdown against an Evansville team that's already pulled off several upsets over the last week.

The Purple Aces (15-18) went 4-14 to tie for last place in the Missouri Valley Conference during the regular season before winning four straight in the conference tournament to become the first No. 9 seed to win the title.

Amy Gallagher sank a 10-footer with 0.3 seconds left to give Evansville a 47-45 win over heavily favored Creighton in Sunday's championship game.

The Purple Aces beat all three of the conference's 20-win teams during their title run, which gave them an automatic bid to their second NCAA tournament. They lost their only previous NCAA tournament game in 1999, falling 78-69 to fourth-seeded LSU.

Blair is well aware that this season's Purple Aces could pose an early threat, but the Aggies dispatched their early-round opponents easily last season, beating Texas-San Antonio 91-52 in the first round before routing Hartford 63-39 two days later.

"Before we can think about the Connecticuts and Tennessees, we have to play Evansville, which did a great job in the (MVC) tournament," Blair told the Aggies' official Web site. "Hopefully, we can go up there and have the same, one-game mentality like we did against UTSA and Hartford last year in the first and second rounds."

Blair has to like the Aggies' chances with the dynamic duo of Takia Starks and Danielle Gant leading his team. Starks and Gant, Texas A&M's top two scorers with 15.6 and 13.8 points per game respectively, are both all-Big 12 first-teamers. Gant, a 5-foot-11 combo guard-forward, also earned Big 12 defensive player of the year honors.

Gant will likely spend some time Sunday trying to contain Evansville guard Ashley Austin, who averaged 17.7 points over the final three games of the MVC tournament before being named tournament MVP.

The Purple Aces will likely need a big night from Austin on Sunday. Though this is their first meeting with the Aggies, they're 0-8 all-time against the Big 12.

The winner of this game will meet either seventh-seeded Notre Dame or No. 10 seed Minnesota in the second round Tuesday.