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Aggies can eye Atlanta thanks to stifling defense

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- If Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie had his wish, the Aggies would shoot the basketball better than any team in the country.

"I'd like to be the best field goal percentage team," Gillispie said. "I'd like to make 100 percent of our shots, so then we wouldn't have to spend so much time and energy worrying about playing defense. It does take its toll -- on me and them. I'm sure they'd tell you the same thing."

The No. 8 Aggies do shoot the basketball about as well as any team in the country -- only four of 325 Division I teams had a better shooting percentage than Texas A&M going into its game Saturday night against No. 14 Oklahoma State. The Aggies also ranked in the top 20 in 3-point shooting and the top 25 in free throw shooting.

But shooting isn't why Texas A&M shellacked the Cowboys 67-49 in front of a crowd of 13,187, the largest to ever watch a game at Reed Arena. And it isn't why the Aggies are alone in first place in the Big 12 Conference standings and might be on the verge of completing their best season ever, possibly ending more than two months from now with a trip to the Final Four at Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

The Aggies are winning -- and winning big -- because of their defense.

Oklahoma State found out exactly why Texas A&M leads the country in field goal percentage defense, as the Cowboys made only shot from the floor in the final 14:41, a drought that turned a three-point game into an ugly 18-point rout.

After Cowboys center Kenny Cooper's hook shot cut the Aggies' lead to 40-37 with 14:42 play, Oklahoma State went nearly 10½ minutes without a field goal. The Cowboys missed eight of their last nine shots, turned the ball over 10 times in their last 24 possessions and made only five field goals in the second half.

"It seemed like we just collapsed," Oklahoma State point guard Byron Eaton said.

It was nothing new against the Aggies. The Cowboys became the 20th consecutive opponent that failed to score more than 69 points against Texas A&M. Earlier this season, the Aggies held Saint Louis to 33, Arkansas-Little Rock to 35 and Grambling State to 27 in easy victories.

But the Cowboys came in averaging 84.4 points per game and had just scored 105 in a triple-overtime victory over Texas on Tuesday night.

"I think, by far, they are the best defensive team we have played against," said Oklahoma State coach Sean Sutton, who used two timeouts in the first 2:17 of the game.

Oklahoma State forward Mario Boggan, who had 37 points and 20 rebounds in the 105-103 thriller over the Longhorns, was held to 11 points on 2-for-8 shooting. Boggan became so frustrated with the Aggies' suffocating defense that he was given a technical foul after he pulled on forward Antanas Kavaliauskas' jersey with 1:35 to play.

"We just wanted to come in and limit his touches," Texas A&M forward Joseph Jones said of Boggan. "We knew that he had been playing well and he had been on fire. We just tried our best to slow him down. I guess we did a good job."

The Aggies are getting better and better on defense, and it's because Gillispie isn't letting them slow down. He learned that work ethic in his native Graford, a dusty small town in West Texas. Gillispie coached at three Texas high schools -- Hal Mumme, the football offensive guru and head coach at New Mexico State was his first athletics director at Copperas Cove High -- before he became an assistant at South Plains Junior College.

"Coach stresses that shots don't always fall, so you've got to find other ways to win. If you're shots aren't falling, you've got to play great team defense. That's our motto. As long as we're playing great team defense, we'll be fine."
-- Texas A&M's Acie Law

Beginning in 1994, Gillispie found himself on the fast track. He was an assistant at Baylor, Tulsa and Illinois, where he recruited Dee Brown, James Augustine and Deron Williams, the trio that helped lead the Illini to the 2005 Final Four. Gillispie was named coach at Texas-El Paso in 2002, and improved the Miners from 6-24 in his first season to 24-8 and an NCAA tournament appearance in the second.

Along the way, defense was always his staple.

"Since he's been here, he's instilled in us to play defense," Jones said. "He told us you don't win championships if you don't play defense."

When Gillispie arrived at Texas A&M three years ago, he held practices in which the Aggies didn't even shoot a basketball.

"The guys that have been here, they see how defense works," Gillispie said. "They expect everyone to play at their level or try to play at their level. It's not anything I'm doing. It's those guys."

And now Gillispie has a lot more of them playing important roles. With 12:29 to go in the first half, senior point guard Acie Law picked up his second foul and went to the bench for the rest of the half. Even without its leading scorer on the floor, Texas A&M more than doubled its lead, before the Cowboys cut it to 38-28 at halftime.

Law only took eight shots in the game, and top 3-point shooter Josh Carter was only 2-for-9 from the field. Starting guard Dominique Kirk went 1-for-6 from the floor.

Still, the Aggies found a way to win their ninth straight game and improve to 16-2 for the first time since 1959-60.

"Coach stresses that shots don't always fall, so you've got to find other ways to win," Law said. "If you're shots aren't falling, you've got to play great team defense. That's our motto. As long as we're playing great team defense, we'll be fine."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.