Freshman guard Nijel Pack took over Saturday morning’s game against Texas A&M (8-7), scoring 23 second-half points, but Kansas State faltered down the stretch, losing 68-61.
Pack finished with a career-high 26 points.
It was the final non-conference game for the Wildcats of the 2020-21 season and the eighth edition of the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The loss was also the eighth-straight for K-State.
Since Pack’s return on Wednesday after missing four games, he has provided a much-needed jolt to the offense leading K-State in scoring the last two games.
“We missed him a lot,” senior guard Mike McGuirl said. “We knew how much we needed him when he was out, and we are happy to have him back.”
The Aggies jumped out to an early lead in the first half during a K-State scoring drought. The Wildcats suffered a major blow to the lineup as well, when sophomore guard DaJuan Gordon had to be helped to the locker room after taking a hard fall while going for a rebound. He did not return.
“Just hope and pray it’s not a fracture, but we’ll see what happens with him,” Head coach Bruce Weber said.
Gordon is K-State’s leader on the “Play Hard” chart and will be a significant absence in the upcoming Big 12 Conference games.
Despite shooting 32 percent from the floor and a dismal 2-17 from three, the Wildcats trailed by only one at the break, 24-23. K-State was able to battle back with a 12-3 run in the final five minutes of the half, including a buzzer-beater by McGuirl. The Aggies didn’t shoot particularly well from the floor at 35 percent and primarily settled for points in the paint.
The Wildcats came out of the break and were able to fight back into the game, led by Pack.
“Obviously, Nijel was special,” Weber said. “To go 8-14 from three, he kept coming up with big plays for us to keep us in the game.”
K-State found a way to get open and hit threes by dishing the ball around quickly, which kept the Wildcats in the game. Pack’s eight makes from deep marked a school record for a freshman, which was previously held by Marcus Foster (2017).
With four minutes left to play, the Wildcats held a 56-55 lead following a three from McGuirl. The Aggies responded with a 13-3 run to take the lead and seal the game.
Texas A&M finished the afternoon shooting 41 percent from the floor, led by 14 points apiece from senior guards Jay Jay Chandler and Savion Flagg. The Aggies got to the free-throw line and went 22-26 from the charity stripe. The Wildcats only had 9 trips to the line, making just five.
“We didn’t get the big shots we needed down the stretch,” Pack said. “I can blame myself for one; a turnover at the end of the game is unacceptable. It definitely sucks, but it’s a learning lesson.”
The team’s three-point shot struggled in the first half, but was significantly better in the second half, thanks to Pack. The Wildcats jumped from 12 percent from three to 29 percent and shot the ball 35 times behind the arc.
McGuirl knocked down two threes of his own. No other K-State player made a three.
K-State limited turnovers and was able to dish the ball with 15 assists — something the Wildcats have been struggling with lately.
“We said to share the basketball and help your teammates get open shots, and I thought we did that,” Weber said. “You’ve got 15 assists and only 11 turnovers, which gives you a chance.”
The Wildcats will have a gauntlet in the Big 12 for their remaining schedule, matching up with five teams that are currently ranked or receiving votes.
The first test will be a road tilt with No. 15 Kansas in the 293rd edition of the Sunflower Showdown on Tuesday. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. on ESPN+. Radio coverage will be available through the K-State Sports Network.
The Wildcats have not defeated the Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse since 2006.