Wendell Mitchell came within a basket of outscoring Kansas State by himself in the second half, and Texas A&M ended a three-game losing streak with a 65-53 victory in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Saturday at Reed Arena.
Mitchell scored all of his 22 points after halftime on 7-of-9 shooting, hitting 4 of 5 from behind the 3-point line. He also put an exclamation mark on an A&M 18-3 run, during which he scored 12 points, with a dunk to put the Aggies up 44-36 midway through the second half.
“Chuck Mitchell,” Kennedy said when asked the key to the run. “He rose up and made some big plays. Our zone, we took a chance, we played zone the whole game, and I think it disrupted K-State and it took them out of their offense. They are very good man-to-man offensive team, and I thought we would have a hard time guarding them man-to-man.”
Mitchell started the decisive 10 minutes with a 3-pointer and immediately followed it with a basket off one of his four steals. He then made another 3 and another basket off a turnover. Savion Flagg then scored on an inbound pass by John Walker III, and the two connected again on the next inbound play, only with Walker getting the two points. A Kansas State turnover led to the Mitchell dunk.
A&M (8-10, 1-5 SEC) outscored the Wildcats (15-5, 5-2 Big 12) 39-23 in the second half, but in many ways it was the way the Aggies stayed within range of the Wildcats in the first half which was key.
Mitchell picked up his second foul 6 minutes in, and the Aggies, who were without starting guard Jay Jay Chandler because of a sprained shoulder, were grossly undermanned.
K-State went up 15-11 and gained its biggest lead with 5 minutes remaining in the half at 28-20. At that time, the Aggies had 10 turnovers and the Wildcats, who are tied with Kansas atop the Big 12, took advantage for 15 points.
“I know everyone is going to look at the second half, but to me it was the first half [that we lost it],” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “That’s when you put doubt in their head. That’s when you get it to 10 or 12, and now they are scrambling to catch up and maybe panic and don’t play zone, but we didn’t do that.”
It was also during that time that Mitchell was sitting on the bench, or at least standing and cheering every play the Aggies made or encouraging them when things went wrong.
“I was keeping my energy going on the bench in the first half, staying engaged with my teammates and just trying to be effective any way possible,” Mitchell said. “[In the second half my thought was] just come in and be solid, do things the coaches preach.”
For 5 minutes late in the first half, the Aggies had a backcourt of Chris Collins and Mark French, who had played 117 and 21 minutes, respectively, all year. Neither scored, but neither had a turnover in a half the Aggies had 11, and Kennedy commended them for their hustle and how they disrupted K-State’s offense with active hands. Collins played 23 minutes, one less than Mitchell, and the 5-foot-8 former walk-on French played 5 minutes.
Sophomore forward Savion Flagg had a solid game throughout, scoring 11 points and grabbing a game-high 12 rebounds, five more than the closest player, for his third double-double of the season. TJ Starks added 12 points and a game-high six assists.
Kansas State was led by senior forward Dean Wade, who recently returned from a foot injury, with 17 points. Senior guard Barry Brown had 11 points, four below his average, and Cartier Diarra came off the bench to score 14.
The victory was a good way to end a trying week for the Aggies, who lost at Florida after leading by 13 at the half and then saw assistant coach Isaac Chew hand in his resignation.
“It’s timely. They are all big but today it was the biggest game of the year,” Kennedy said. “I’m proud of our guys for hanging in there this week through some different challenges, and we had the right focus. It started at Florida, and we came back and had a good performance today.”
NOTES — Kennedy said he thought Chandler would be back on the court Monday and was definitely hoping he would return for A&M’s next game, a home contest on Wednesday against LSU. … The Big 12 won 6 of 10 games against the SEC, to go up 35-25 in the six years of the competition between the two conferences. … The only road victory in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge was Iowa State winning 87-73 at Ole Miss. … It was announced Saturday that the series between the two conferences would run at least another six years. … A&M is 2-3 against the Big 12 in the series and 7-3 overall against the conference in the last four years.