NEW YORK (AP)—Joseph Jones and Dominique Kirk gave answers any coach would be elated to hear.
“We love to play defense,” the Texas A&M seniors said.
They and their teammates had already proven that.
The 16th-ranked Aggies held Ohio State to one field goal over the first 11 1/2 minutes of the second half in a 70-47 victory Friday night in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
“Defense wins games. So we go out there and try to play defense every day,” Kirk said. “That’s where it starts. And offense takes care of itself.”
First-year Aggies coach Mark Turgeon said the team was put together with defense in mind.
“If you look at our team, we’re fast, we’re athletic. It was built for defense,” Turgeon said. “And it’s been programmed before I got here to play defense. … So it’s just been an easy carryover but the guys think that way. Don’t get me wrong, we love offense, too.”
Wow. The coach had to bring up offense.
Reserve guard Derrick Roland scored a career-high 15 points for the Aggies (6-0), who were ahead 31-25 at halftime and then turned on the defense, holding the Buckeyes (3-1) to 1-for-17 shooting to open the second half at Madison Square Garden.
When Jamar Butler hit a jumper with 8:33 to play for Ohio State’s second field goal of the second half, it ended Texas A&M’s 23-5 run that made it 54-30.
“If we don’t make shots we’re not a very good basketball team,” said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, whose team advanced with a 79-65 victory over No. 21 Syracuse. “I think that we showed Wednesday night that we could build a lead against a very good basketball team and sustain it. We also showed tonight that when we got down, we didn’t have that fight we needed to get back in the basketball game.
“I’m not taking anything away from Texas A&M. They did a great job. But you think one could bounce in there for us one time.”
The Aggies, who were patient on offense to complement their defense, led by as many 31 points—66-35 on a rebound basket by Nathan Walkup with 3:39 to play.
Freshman center DeAndre Jordan and Walkup both had 11 points for Texas A&M, which advanced to the championship game with a 77-63 victory over Washington.
Jones had 10 points and seven rebounds for Texas A&M to go with his 17 points and eight rebound against Washington and he was selected the tournament’s MVP, a decision based on—what else?—defense.
“They were getting a couple of shots in the first half, and the second half their shots weren’t falling,” Jones said. “I pay attention to our team and try to keep fighting and digging down, getting more stops and more rebounds and pushing back at them.”
The Aggies developed their taste for defense, and success, in coach Billy Gillispie’s three seasons there. Texas A&M, led by All-America guard Acie Law IV, fell one win short of the Final Four last season. Gillispie left for Kentucky and Turgeon moved over from Wichita State.
“You can’t never replace a player like Acie Law. He’s a great player, a great leader,” said Kirk, who had six points and five assists. “We just have to bond together as a family like we’ve always been. I think people see us out there continuing to fight hard.”
The previous career high for Roland, a sophomore, was nine points earlier this season against Ouachita. He had two points in the semifinals.
Butler had 17 points for the Buckeyes, who lost three freshmen—including overall No. 1 pick Greg Oden—to the NBA draft after reaching the championship game of the NCAA tournament last season.
Ohio State’s 7-foot freshman Kosta Koufos had 24 points and nine rebounds in the semifinals but he finished with 10 points on 4-for-16 shooting against the Aggies.
The Buckeyes shot 24.6 percent for the game (14-for-57), including 5-for-28 in the second half (17.9 percent). Ohio State was 4-for-21 from 3-point range.
“You’re going to have games like this,” Matta said. “I don’t know how many I’ve been a part of where the ball would not go in the basket for us but tonight I was.”
The Buckeyes split their games with ranked teams here and they will host No. 1 North Carolina on Wednesday and visit No. 22 Butler on Dec. 1.
“We’ve got to get back, regroup, and get ourselves ready to go,” Matta said. “To feel sorry for yourself or whatever, we can’t do that. We’ve got to get ourselves ready to play again. I can’t name another team in the country that’s playing four Top 25 teams in a stretch of 10 days, and that’s what we’ve got ahead of us.”
Texas A&M shot 52.7 percent for the game (29-for-55) and outrebounded the Buckeyes 47-32, with Jordan leading the Aggies with eight.
“When you shoot 24 percent there’s going to be a lot of rebounds and it’s probably going to be a little lopsided,” Matta said.