NCAA Tournament challenge with Nebraska awaits Nederland High graduate

Published 12:04 am Wednesday, March 20, 2024

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After Texas A&M basketball’s defeat Saturday in the SEC tournament, a reporter asked senior program stalwart Hayden Hefner if he was worried about the Aggies making the NCAA tournament.

“I feel like we have been trying to control what we can control and going out there and doing what we know we can accomplish,” Hefner said. “With that being done, it’s just all up to the committee now.”

Well, ultimately, the former Nederland High School star and his college teammates didn’t have anything to worry about.

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Texas A&M is headed to March Madness as the No. 9 seed in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament.

The Aggies (20-14) earned an at-large bid and face No. 8-seed Nebraska (23-10) at 5:50 p.m. Friday at FedExForum in Memphis. The game is being broadcast on TNT.

The winner faces the winner of the Houston-Longwood game on Sunday, with a trip to the South Regional at the American Airlines Center in Dallas on the line.

Hefner has played in 33 of 34 games for the Aggies this season with 18 starts.

Hayden Hefner, No. 2, watches as Jace Carter, No. 0, of the Texas A&M Aggies shoots a free throw against the Mississippi St. at Reed Arena in College Station on March 6. (Ishika Samant/Texas A&M Athletics)

He is scoring 5.3 points per game and averaging just under two rebounds per contest over 14.8 minutes per game.

The last game for Texas A&M represented the good and bad that has highlighted this college basketball season.

The Aggies scored 90 points against a talented Florida team but lost by five points, giving 14 of 26 from the three-point lines and 49.1 percent opponent’s field goal percentage overall.

Following the game, Hefner said the many foul calls contributed to the team’s sloppy play. The Gators shot 27 of 35 from the free throw line.

“I think it contributed a little bit,” Hefner told reporters. “With the whistles getting blown a lot, it is just hard maintaining a flow with what we are trying to accomplish. We always try to reiterate to one another, and the coaching staff is always telling us to stay in the moment and not let that affect what we are trying to accomplish.”

Hefner put more blame on the team’s defense, which he said could have limited Florida from getting into the paint as much as the Gators did.

“Once they started getting into the middle with drives and spraying (passes) out, they were knocking down threes and we were late to contests,” he said. “Just limiting the number of turning middle, skipping the ball across the paint and being there on the closeout are things we could have done a little bit better.”

Tournament run

Texas A&M is making back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in more than a decade.

The only other time the Aggies have made NCAA trips in consecutive seasons was 2006-11 when they made six straight trips.

Texas A&M is making its 16th overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament, as the Aggies hold a 13-16 record in the big dance.

New challenge

For the first time in 10 years, Nebraska is in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

The 2023-24 season marks the eighth time in school history that Nebraska has received an NCAA bid and the first since the 2013-14 season. The Huskers’ No. 8 seed is the highest since 1994, as the Huskers look for their first NCAA Tournament win in school history.

Under the direction of Big Ten Coach of the Year Fred Hoiberg, Nebraska’s 23 wins are the most since the 1990-91 season and the second-highest total in school history.

Nebraska features a balanced attack led by All-Big Ten performers Keisei Tominaga and Rienk Mast.

Tominaga, a two-time All-Big Ten performer, leads Nebraska in scoring at 14.9 points per game and has a team-high 71 3-pointers. The 6-foot-2 senior guard has seven 20-point games this season, including a pair of 30-point performances.

Mast, a 6-foot-10 junior forward, averages 12.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game in his first season at Nebraska, as he leads the Huskers in rebounds and assists.

NU leads the Big Ten in 3-pointers per game (9.5/gm) while its 312 3-pointers shattered the previous school mark of 270 set in 2019.

Nebraska leads the all-time series with the Aggies, 12-8, but the teams have not met since the 2010-11 season.