COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy figured the Aggies had nothing to lose in trying to snap a three-game losing streak, so he overhauled his defensive strategy entering Saturday’s game against Kansas State.
“We took a chance and played zone the whole game, and I thought it disrupted Kansas State and took them out of their offense,” Kennedy said. “I thought we’d have a hard time guarding them man to man.”
Turns out the Wildcats had a hard time guarding A&M’s Wendell Mitchell, but only after halftime. Mitchell scored a game-high 22 points, all in the second half, and A&M dashed past KSU 65-53 in the annual Big 12/SEC Challenge.
“On (Friday) night I talked about expecting the unexpected,” Wildcats coach Bruce Weber said of the Aggies going with a zone defense throughout. “In the first half we should have got the lead to 10 or 12 points, but we didn’t make the plays we needed to.”
The Wildcats (15-5) led 30-26 at halftime before the Aggies (8-10) outscored their former Big 12 brethren 39-23 over the final 20 minutes. A&M relied on an 18-3 run early in the second half to overcome a seven-point deficit just after the break.
Mitchell, who started his college career at Baylor of the Big 12, made 7 of 9 shots in the second half, and 7 of 12 overall, after sitting out all but six minutes in the first half in foul trouble. The Aggies had lost their four prior home games, including a nonconference contest against Texas Southern, before earning their first double-digit victory since prior to Christmas.
“Communication was at a high level today,” Mitchell said. “And I was just feeding off of my teammates.”
Dean Wade led the Wildcats with 17 points and the Aggies’ Savion Flagg led all rebounders with 12. The Wildcats held a 16-14 advantage in points in the paint in the first half, but the Aggies wound up with a 32-20 edge on that front.
“If we’re going to have a chance, we have to really be locked in defensively every time,” said Weber, whose squad is tied atop the Big 12 standings with Kansas at 5-2.
A&M exited the Big 12 and entered the SEC in the summer of 2012.
KSU: Weber figured the Wildcats might step into a trap in College Station, and he was right. KSU stumbled into a desperate SEC team, although the Wildcats’ five-game win streak in Big 12 play still stands. KSU was on the cusp of re-entering the Top 25, but that likely won’t happen coming off a double-digit setback against a team with an overall losing record.
A&M: Even if it’s not SEC action, the Aggies needed this one in the worst way after dropping five of their first six league games. This was the first of three consecutive homes games for A&M, and a solid start to trying to get back on track in conference play before it’s too late.
KSU: The Wildcats stay on the road at Oklahoma State on Feb. 2.
A&M: The Aggies stay home against LSU on Wednesday.
A&M starting guard Jay Jay Chandler sat out with a sprained shoulder, and Kennedy said he hopes the sophomore returns to practice on Monday.
The Aggies likely knew things were going to go their way when, on their first shot of the second half, a short jumper by Christian Mekowulu rolled across the top of the backboard and smoothly dropped through the hoop, in cutting the Wildcats’ lead to 33-28.