The arena was crowded. The fans were loud. Two old foes prepared to face off on the court. Close your eyes and you could almost swear you were back in the 1980s and the Southwest Conference still existed.
Such was Hofheinz Pavilion on Saturday night as the Houston Cougars hosted the Texas A&M Aggies for the first time since December of 2003. But it was evident early in the game that this was no trip to the past for the Cougars or the Aggies. For if this had been a trip back to the 1980s, then the Cougars would have roared off to victory. Instead the Aggies soared to a quick lead and never looked back, defeating the Cougars 70-59 in a game that wasn't as close as that final score indicates.
The Cougars (5-2) are supposedly a more athletic team than last season's. The team is supposed to be bigger, more physical, tougher, more disciplined. But that wasn't evident on Saturday. They fell quickly behind, failing to execute the offense, letting the Aggies shove them about the court, not getting rebounds. Everything they did last season, and in seasons past, but were supposed to have outgrown.
"We weren't playing the right way," guard J.J. Thompson said. "We were trying to come out and do some stuff on our own. That's just what happened."
But it's doubtful, even if the Cougars would've have played the right way in the first half, that they would have been able to keep pace with the Aggies. That's because the Aggies were everything the Cougars are supposed to be this season. The Aggies controlled the boards, executed the offense and outmuscled Houston, and as the half hit, they were up 42-24.
"They were just tougher than us, throughout the whole night," Thompson said. "They were more tougher. They played harder."
The Cougars attempted to make a game of it in the second half. They went on multiple runs, but struggled time and time again to get the deficit into single digits. They would get to within 11 or 12 points and commit a turnover, or give up a rebound, or just take a stupid shot. The crowd of 6,423 mostly Cougar fans tried to help push the Cougars over the top, but nothing worked. The Cougars just dug too big a hole, and they couldn't climb out.
"They gave us their best shot," forward Danuel House said of the Aggies. "They hit us in the mouth."
The sad thing about the game, sadder than the loss, was that the Cougars wasted their biggest crowd in years. Hofheinz Pavilion is usually empty and quiet on game days. The conversations of people in the top rows can usually be heard down at the press table. But it was packed (packed for Hofheinz) on Saturday night. The students actually showed up for the game, and the band was loud, even during the first half of the game when the Cougars were being blown out.
"I thought their defense was good," head coach James Dickey said of the Aggies. "They did a lot of switching. I thought they executed better on both ends of the floor in the first half than we did. I thought it was just a matter of execution. We didn't drive the ball very much. Everything was a jump shot."
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Despite that first half, the crowd still yearned to get into the game, and every time the Cougars attempted to crawl back into the game, it sounded like the crowd would blow the roof off of the arena. But the Cougars just couldn't get the deal done.
"We know what a special place this can be, and we're just disappointed that we let our fans down and our students down," Dickey said. "I really appreciate our student body coming out like they did tonight."
The Cougars take on another old SWC foe on Tuesday when they travel to Fort Worth to face TCU, then they host TSU on Saturday night. And despite the disappointment of the Aggie game, the Cougar season is still young, and they still have six more games before they move into conference play, and they still have a 5-2 record.
But the Cougars have to remember the game plan. They have to be physical. They have to execute and be tough. They have to be disciplined. They have to get the rebounds. And if they pull that off, they will always have a chance to win. But if they come out like they did against the Aggies, then this could be another lost season, something they didn't often have when they were the best team in the Southwest Conference.