Following several tough conference losses for Texas A&M men’s basketball, the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Saturday gave the Aggies the opportunity to step away from the SEC and add one to their win column.
A&M managed to outlast a three-point shooting barrage from Kansas State’s freshman guard Nijel Pack in the second half with the help of four Aggies scoring double-digit points. A run of 18 consecutive made free throws for the Aggies also helped to propel them to their second road win of the season in Manhattan, Kan.
“January hasn't been the easiest of months for those guys, and for them to be able to close the month out that they did,” A&M coach Buzz Williams said. “There were multiple opportunities when things weren't going our way and they continued to stand their ground and that's what gave us a chance.”
Through the first half, A&M’s defensive gameplan forced Kansas State to shoot from deep, causing the Wildcats to go 0-of-12 from beyond the arc in the first 15 minutes. The Aggies continued the season trend of having offensive struggles through the first half though, going on two four-plus minute field goal droughts.
“We want to force as many contested threes as possible,” Williams said. “And we want to keep the ball out of the paint, we call it ‘the box,’ defensively … We’ve done a very good job. Thirty-five percent of LSU’s possessions, they got to the box. Today that number was 39 percent. That's an elite level number … Today, 63 percent of their shots were from three.”
At the end of the first half, A&M shot 32.6 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from deep compared to Kansas State’s 32.1 percent and 11.8 percent from deep. Freshman guard Hassan Diara led the Aggies with six points that helped A&M take a 24–23 lead into the first horn.
Throughout the day, A&M was sparing with assists, only having one in the first half and seven total. Despite this, sophomore forward Emanuel Miller scored 12 points, sophomore guard Andre Gordon scored 10 on 7of-8 free throws, senior guard Jay Jay chandler scored 14 on 4-of-8 three-pointers, and senior guard Savion Flagg scored 14.
“I just felt like when a player got the ball, that there was a lot of driving angles,” Flagg said “So we just capitalized on that and everyone was just playing with super confidence. [Senior forward Kevin Marfo] hitting mid-range jumpers and everybody was just contributing to the win. No one is having problems with those guys taking shots.”
Kansas State came into the day after a massive blowout loss to Baylor, 107-59. Williams said this did not affect his game plan and that he emphasized more on spirit.
“Bruce Weber, two years ago, won the Big 12,” Williams said. “He is an elite level coach. I studied Baylor, I’ve studied a lot of their clips. I don't know that I necessarily gleaned something specific from Baylor … When you play a team at the halfway point of an 18 game marathon, you don't really know what's going on and so you kind of have to do a deep dive and you're just touching as much as you can.”
Through the last two games, A&M has significantly improved on its turnovers where it normally struggles. The last two games saw under 10 turnovers compared to its season average of 15.9, with nine turnovers against Kansas State.
A&M also improved upon its season averages in shooting from deep, making 6–14 shots from deep on the day. The solid shooting numbers from the Aggies helped offset Pack’s 8-of-14 from three point range and 26 total points to pull out the 68-61 win.
“I'm really happy for our guys,” Williams said. “They're good kids. We need to get better in 4,212 different ways, and they're beginning to be accepting of whatever way it is we are trying to improve that particular day. I think that speaks to who they are. We’re not the best team, I'm not the best coach, we don't have the best roster, but I do think that there is a skill in how hard you play… I do think that you can't count the spirit with which you compete.”