Kansas State missed its first 13 three-point shot attempts against the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament round of 32 matchup in Greensboro, North Carolina. Ironic, perhaps, that the game was ultimately decided by the deep ball—and decided in K-State’s favor—as the Little Apple Wildcats bested the Lexington version, 75-69, to advance to the Sweet 16 later this week at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Marquis Nowell hit the first three-pointer for the No. 3-seeded Wildcats (25-9) at the 14:33 mark of the second half. The Cats needed it badly, after Kentucky had erased a 29-26 K-State halftime lead with a whistle-aided 13-2 run that put K-State in an 8-point hole. Nowell’s first make, on the heels of one of Desi Sills’ by-now-familiar 5-point personal runs had cut the deficit to three, tied the score at 39-all with just over 14 minutes to play.
It was punch and counter-punch most of the way after that, but when Kentucky’s Lance Ware got free for a dunk to give the blue Wildcats a 4-point cushion with 4 minutes on the clock, momentum seemed to have slipped away.
Appearances can be deceiving.
Nowell nailed a long three-pointer from above the circle on the next possession to get K-State back within 1 at 60-59. Then, in the biggest plays of the game, his teammates stepped up.
With Nowell being pressured on the left wing, he zipped a pass all the way across the arc to Ismael Massoud. Ish rose from about 7 feet beyond the right arc to can his only three-pointer—heck, his only bucket—of the day and give K-State a 64-62 lead with 2:19 remaining.
Kentucky missed an open three-point look, and after Nowell failed to connect from deep on the ensuing possession, David N’Guessan (who was an absolute glue-guy monster in the game) got the offensive rebound. Keyontae Johnson, who had made only 4 of 13 attempts and 0 of 3 from deep on the day, jab-stepped his man and stepped back to drill a pure three-point attempt to give K-State the coveted 2-possession lead, 67-62, with 1:23 on the clock. Johnson’s first three came on Nowell’s 9th and final assist of the day.
From there, Nowell made 6 of 6 free throw attempts, Desi Sills made 2 of 2, and the clock ran out with Kansas State holding a 75-69 advantage over the bluebloods of Kentucky.
Nowell, by far the smallest player on the floor, was the biggest factor in his team’s success. He finished with 27 points, 9 assists, 3 steals, and 2 rebounds. Every bit of the performance was needed to offset the game of Oscar Tshiebwe, who used superior size, skill, athleticism, and the referee deference afforded to an All-American of his stature, to score 25, and to collect 18 rebounds.
Tshiebwe’s teammate, Cason Wallace, also had himself a game, with 21 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists. But K-State forced both Tshiebwe and Wallace into 5 turnovers, as Tang’s Gang uncharacteristically won the turnover battle by a whopping 16-8 margin.
K-State also had to overcome an 11-3 foul disparity in the first three-quarters of the second half, before Kentucky had to foul late to make the final tally 17 fouls apiece.
Johnson ended with 13 points in an atypically inefficient 5-14 (1-4) shooting performance, but he added 4 rebounds and 3 assists, and he helped Tomlin and especially N’Guessan to harass Tshiebwe in the paint. Nae’Qwan Tomlin finished a K-State run to end the first half by converting a slam off a stunning no-look lob from Nowell, and he finished with 12 points, 6 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 2 steals. His four blocks were more than Kentucky collected as a team (1).
Sills also had 12, to give K-State four double-figure scorers.
All five starters had at least one steal for K-State, with N’Guessan coming off the bench to match Nowell’s 3. The turnover margin was an enormous factor in the outcome, considering the Kentucky out-rebounded Kansas State by the absolutely crazy margin of 45-25.
After watching higher seeds fall to upsets, K-State managed to pull off an upset of its own (in the eyes of the gambling experts), even though it was the higher seed. The Wildcats will now await the outcome of the Marquette-Michigan State matchup to learn their opponent for the round of 16.
Three (+1, because we’re hoping for a Final Four, after all) in the Key
- Though Kentucky held as much as an 8-point lead twice in the game, it felt throughout as if K-State was certainly not outmatched and was, perhaps, even the better team overall. Tshiebwe is a transcendent player who was going to get his numbers. But K-State played better team basketball, rotating on defense, forcing turnovers, and sharing the basketball to get easy looks. The guys held Kentucky to only 26-63 (41.3%) shooting, including 4-20 (25%) from outside. Once the Big 12 Wildcats started hitting shots and the whistles stopped plaguing their efforts, the momentum they built was unstoppable.
- This team’s eyes had to light up on Selection Sunday when they realized they were in the East Region. As has been written seemingly everywhere, Tomlin, Massoud, Greene and “Mr. N-Y-C” Marquis Nowell all have roots in New York. From the start of the tournament it was going to be fun to watch all of them—and particularly ‘Quis—display their talents to the country. Now that they get to go home and show out at a basketball Mecca like MSG, they must feel as if their dreams have come true.
- ESPN Stats reports that Nowell has scored or assisted on 93 of K-State’s points so far in the tournament, which equates to 62% of the team’s scoring. Since 2010, only Ja Morant (62%) and Jimmer Fredette (60%) have been at above 60%.
- Five years ago, when Barry Brown and four teammates all under 6-foot-4 had to score late and hold off a longer, stronger, and eventually much, much richer Kentucky squad to qualify for the Elite 8, my hands were shaking so badly that I could barely type out a coherent recap. Today feels different. Maybe it’s because that Bruce Weber-led squad had won for the first time in school history over Kentucky on the Sweet-16 stage, leaving only one (sadly, missed) opportunity in the way of making the Final 4. That 2018 win, with Dean Wade unable to participate much, felt more like overcoming the odds than this one. This time, Vegas predictions be damned, I expected our ‘Cats to win. I hope I’m nervous at the keyboard Thursday night, as we collectively contemplate the Promised Land again.