The Kansas State Wildcats made certain that Coach Jerome Tang’s homecoming to Waco was memorable, overcoming a three-point deficit to No. 19 Baylor in overtime to claim a 97-95 road victory.
K-State (14-1, 3-0 Big 12), picked a distant last in the Big 12 preseason poll, won its third straight conference game against a ranked opponent to open 3-0 in league play for the first time since the 2012-2013 season. The Baylor Bears (10-5, 0-3), picked first in the poll, lost their third consecutive league game.
Wildcat point guard Markquis Nowell continues to dazzle. The 5’8 senior led all scorers with 32 points on 8-16 shooting, including 4-7 from three-point range. He added 14 assists and made 12 of 13 free throw attempts. A couple of key plays stand out.
Trailing 91-88 with 1:46 remaining in the overtime, K-State threw the ball to Nowell in the corner. He was defended by the much taller Jalen Bridges and could easily have been trapped. But the savvy showman faked Bridges into a foul, then connected on all three charity tosses to tie the game at 91.
After Baylor reclaimed a 95-93 lead, Nowell broke down two defenders on the right baseline and tossed a perfect pass into the shooting motion of fellow Weber-era holdover Ismael Massoud, who swished home the three-pointer to give the Cats a 96-95 lead with only 32 seconds remaining.
There were other signature moments, of course. An oop to Keyontae Johnson for a high-flying slam. A drive and a high floater that bounced one...two...three...four times on the rim before falling home. A jab-step and cut to the basket for a lay-up high off the glass on an inbound play. A three-point basket with his heels on the Baylor center-court logo. The game is Markquis’s circus right now. He’s the ringleader, and he’s clowning the competition.
Fellow senior Keyontae Johnson may not have lit quite as many lights on the scoreboard, but he was excellent, as usual. In 42 minutes, Johnson scored 24 points on 11-17 (2-4 from three) shooting. He also led the team with 9 rebounds.
The biggest key to the victory, however, may have been the contributions of Massoud off the bench. Foul trouble and matchup challenges conscripted him into 17 minutes of duty time. He held his own defensively while scoring an enormously important 13 points on only 4 shots from the field. He was 3-4 from outside and 4-4 from the line.
Nae’Qwan Tomlin just missed double-figures, scoring 9, but he grabbed 8 rebounds, threw an assist, and registered 3 blocked shots. Three other Wildcats each blocked a single shot, giving the Wildcats 6 on the day.
Every play is magnified in a two-point overtime game, of course. The Bears are talented, especially around the perimeter, and the 6-10, 250-pound Flo Thamba presents a matchup problem for K-State. Baylor was led by senior guard Adam Flagler, who dropped in 23 points. Freshman Keyonte George showed why he was considered a top-10 recruit, scoring 22. George was unguardable at times and shot 16 free throws, making 12. Fortunately for K-State, he was 0-5 from outside.
Thamba (14), Jalen Bridges (11) and Langston Love (10) also reached double figures in scoring for the Bears.
For the game, Baylor shot 38 free throws (making 29) to K-State’s 21 (making 18). The Wildcats shot 53% from the filed (34-64), including 44% from deep (11-25). K-State held Baylor to 44% shooting (29-65), including an 8-25 performance from outside.
Three in the Key
- When K-State fans peeked ahead to the conference schedule, we all had the home opener with West Virginia, along with roadies at Texas and Baylor inked into the win column, right? If you were under oath, that kind of revisionist history would get you a contempt charge. After underperforming in its only loss at Butler on November 30, Coach Tang’s team has steadily improved. But when the Wildcats struggled to put away what is now a 6-7 Radford Highlander squad before the Christmas break, even optimistic fans had to worry a bit about the meat grinder of the Big 12. Turns out, those fears look silly now. Not only should the Wildcats finally break into the Top-25 next week; you can make an argument that they should leapfrog up to No. 15, or even higher.
- Markquis Nowell, man. K-State fans were understandably disappointed that Nijel Pack elected not to hang around and see what Coach Tang could make of the Wildcats. Maybe the team would be even better if he had stayed. But where would K-State be without Nowell? During the broadcast, ESPN put up a graphic showing that the last player to have posted a combined 59 points, 19 assists and 10 steals in two games was Steph Curry. As the crew pointed out, Curry, who played at Davidson, did not exactly turn that trick against teams of quite the same caliber as West Virginia and Texas. All of this leads one to wonder...did Steph go for 36 and 14 in his next game?
- If the Big 12 is the murderers’ row everyone thinks it is (KenPom says the hardest 10 remaining schedules in the country belong to the 10 Big 12 teams, which is simply mind-blowing), just how big are K-State fans allowed to dream now that the Wildcats have started conference play 3-0? How much bigger can they dream, considering that all three wins have come against ranked teams, and two of those were on the road against two of the three favorites to win the league? It is not as if K-State has dominated. Two of the wins have been in overtime, and the Cats had to score more than 103 in regulation to win the other. They have also needed—and gotten—steady play up and down the roster and transcendent play from Nowell and Johnson. That Baylor, with all its talent and having started with 2-of 3 league openers at home, has started 0-3 is a testament to just how tough this league is. Every team is capable of beating every other team on any given night. Most teams are separated by a play or two, a mistake or two. So far, K-State has risen to the challenge. Though it will be hard to sustain this level of success, it is probably time now to stop worrying about whether the Cats will make the NCAA tournament field and start wondering just how high they might be seeded.