Louisiana Tech senior point guard Kenneth "Speedy" Smith was confident his Bulldogs were headed to Philadelphia for a rematch with Temple Wednesday night in the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament.
Although a very talented Texas A&M team stood in the way of the Bulldogs' potential quarterfinal appearance, Smith told his father - Kenneth Sr. - to go ahead and buy his plane ticket to the City of Brotherly Love.
The younger Smith delivered. The Conference USA player of the year scored 16 points and registered eight assists to lead Louisiana Tech to an 84-72 win over Texas A&M at Reed Arena, setting up a Wednesday night showdown at Temple with a trip to Madison Square Garden in New York on the line.
On a night where Raheem Appleby struggle offensively, hitting only 1 of 10 field goals, Smith and backcourt teammate Alex Hamilton were unstoppable, combining to score 41 points on 14-of-23 shooting, including 7-of-10 from the three-point line.
"Speedy and Alex were terrific," said Tech head coach Mike White. "Anytime you can hit jump shots against a team that is so strong on the interior defensively, it only helps with loosening them up. Speedy hit a couple. He was incredible. I thought it was Alex' best game of season, and I'm not sure it wasn't Speedy's as well. He hit a couple of late-clock, off-the-bounce three-pointers that he created for himself. Those weren't easy shots. I thought we got into the late clock, played with poise, and Speedy Smith hit some hard ones and key ones that were timely."
Tech (27-8) trailed 29-22 with just over five minutes to play in the first half as the Aggies front court combination of Kourtney Roberson - son of former LA Tech great Victor King - and Jalen Jones posed match-up problems inside early.
However, the Bulldogs started warming up on both ends of the floor. After making just 1 of their first 11 three-point field goal attempts, Qiydar Davis made a three-pointer that started a 13-5 run that ended the first half, giving Tech a 35-34 lead in the locker room. Smith and Hamilton both connected on three-pointers during the run to fuel the Bulldogs strong finish.
Tech held A&M to only five points over the final five minutes of the first half.
"We had a week to prepare," White said. "Early in the game we weren't able to get back and settle in to our man-to-man. They were breaking the press and driving it right at us. When we settled into our man-to-man defensive in the full-court and half court, our guys showed attention to detail and pride. It wasn't just our bigs defending them, our guards really helped. We did a good job of helping down low and then contesting three's when they kicked it back out."
Smith picked up where he left off early in the second half, hitting a pair of three-pointers in less than a 60 second span as the two teams traded baskets with Tech holding a 43-41 advantage with 17:32 to play in the game.
The Bulldogs then began to get defensive stops while continuing to hit on the offensive end as a Xavian Stapleton three-pointer and Erik McCree layup with 14:18 to play gave Tech a double digit lead at 51-41.
Tech's lead remained around 10 as Smith connected on his fourth three-pointer of the game at the midway mark of the second half, giving the Bulldogs a 56-44 advantage.
Texas A&M made one final run as a Roberson free throw with 7:42 remaining cut the deficit to 60-54. However, freshman Jacobi Boykins made a pair of big three-pointers in a 60 second span of time - both coming off Smith assists - as the lead ballooned back to 12 points.
Hamilton then took over, scoring 10 of the next 16 points for Tech as the lead increased to as many as 17 points at 82-65 with 1:29 to play.
"Alex Hamilton was the best player on the floor tonight," White said. "He was incredible. I thought Jacobi Boykins was big too. Jacobi was in the game for Raheem and that was a tough decision for me. Usually we have our three all-conference guards in the game down the stretch. Raheem was great on the bench during timeouts. He was like an extension of the staff. He was awesome. Jacobi steps up and hits two big three's. It was arguably Alex' best game of the season. I saw it at the tip; he had a higher energy level. He played with a lot of pride tonight."
Michale Kyser added 14 points in the win as helped Tech stay even on the glass with Texas A&M at 30-30.
For the game, Tech shot 52 percent (31-60) from the field, including 11-of-27 from the three-point line.