When Marquis Nowell picked up his 10th assist of the day on an alley-oop to Keyontae Johnson from behind half-court to give Kansas State a 69-52 lead with four minutes to play, it appeared the game was over. Then the Wildcats (11-1) played as if it was over and had to gut out a 7-point win, sealed by a savant coaching maneuver.
In a game that featured 11 lead changes, the Radford Highlanders (6-7) hung close with the Cats most of the day and even led early in the second half. Johnson had struggled to find his shooting touch, making only 2 of his first 10 attempts, including misses on all three 3-point attempts. Fortunately, Nae’Qwan Tomlin found plenty of high-percentage looks on his way to a game-high 26 points, and his play was crucial to the Wildcat victory.
But the pivotal stretch of the game occurred when Johnson asserted himself and got shots in the lane. He scored 6 of K-State’s 11 points as the Wildcats built a 58-42 advantage, and when the Highlanders pressured him in the high post, Johnson tossed a lob at least two feet above the left side of the rim that Tomlin caught and threw down one-handed for one of his five dunks on the day.
Tomlin’s highlight reel also included a second-half play where he faked a three in front of the K-State bench, dribbled toward the lane, stutter-stepped while maintaining his dribble, then took two long strides and flushed an impressive dunk from the other side of the hoop. His 26 points came on 11-18 shooting, with three of those misses on his four 3-point attempts. Tomlin added a team-leading 9 rebounds, as well as 2 blocks, an assist and a steal with no turnovers. After the diverse offensive ability he showcased today, it is hard to fathom how Tomlin suffered consecutive scoreless outings against LSU and Butler.
After the aforementioned half-court oop and Johnson slam, Radford got a three-point basket, a dunk and a lay-up to cut the Cat lead to 69-59. David N’Guessan scored a layup on Nowell’s 11th assist to establish a 12-point cushion. But K-State got sloppy with the basketball, allowing Radford to pull within 7 at 71-64. Most alarming, K-State’s primary ball-handlers were the guilty parties, as Desi Sills committed his third turnover of the game, and Markquis Nowell committed his fifth and sixth unforced giveaways on consecutive possessions between the 1:20 and 0:43 marks on the clock.
Coach Tang employed a unique coaching tactic to ice the game, twice inbounding the ball to Nowell, the Wildcats’ best free throw shooter, in the backcourt, trying to induce a foul. Nowell made no attempt to cross halfcourt with the ball, and when Radford declined to put him on the free throw line, the Cats called a timeout just before the 10-second backcourt violation would have occurred. The strategy whittled nearly 20 seconds off the clock. On the ensuing possession Radford fouled Johnson, who made both charity attempts to effectively ice the game.
Three Wildcats joined Tomlin in double figure scoring. Johnson wound up with 16 on 6-15 shooting and 4-7 from the free throw line. Nowell had 10 points on 3-6 (2-4 three-point) shooting, to go along with his 11 assists. Desi Sills helped keep the ship afloat in the first half and finished with 10 points, four rebounds and two steals.
David N’Guessan did not reach double figures in scoring, but he contributed 7 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and a blocked shot to the effort.
Three Highlanders reached double figures, led by Kenyon Giles, who poured in 20.
Three in the Key
- K-State was less than perfect in a half-empty pre-holiday-afternoon arena, but the guys found a way to win even without getting Keyontae Johnson’s usual steady production. Radford had started the season with a 10-point loss at Marquette and a 3-point loss at Notre Dame and had not lost a game by more than 11 points all season, so the 15.5-point spread Vegas put on this one was probably optimistic. Finding a way to win when you are not at your best is a hallmark of good teams. So, at 11-1 in nonconference, is K-State a good team?
- We’ll find out in short order just how good Tang’s Gang is. The Cats host West Virginia to begin Big 12 play at 6:00 on New Years’ Eve, and will then line up against No. 7 Texas and No. 12 Baylor. After a home game against Oklahoma State, the Wildcats will then have two more consecutive games against teams that are currently ranked: No. 20 TCU, and No. 4 Kansas. K-State has not played against any really good “tournament lock” type squads in the non-conference slate. That will change in a hurry.
- Though the schedule has not been impressive, K-State’s performance thus far has been as much as the most optimistic Wildcat fans could hope for. Coach Tang has brought a fun, athletic style of play to Manhattan, and he has attracted some long, athletic players to run his system. After a well-earned Christmas Break, we’ll see how the team stacks up against the most competitive league in the NCAAs.
Merry Christmas, Cat fans!