We all hoped Markquis Nowell would be able to shine under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden back in his hometown of New York City for the Sweet 16.
But I’m not sure if anyone could have possibly imagined the remarkable performance the 5-7 point guard (Yes, I know he’s listed at 5-8, but let’s be real) turned in to lead the Cats back to the Elite 8 with a 98-93 win over Michigan State. Nowell put up 20 points, an NCAA record 19 assists, 5 steals and even grabbed 3 rebounds. All while turning the ball over just twice.
Still, those numbers don’t really capture the full impact he had on the game, or how special it was for him to do that even with just one good ankle the last 15 minutes. The Spartans simply had no answer for the point guard who moved into third place all alone on the Big 12’s all-time single season assists list (284) and also broke a Kansas State record for steals in a season (87).
K-State’s other star delivered as well, with Keyontae Johnson going for an efficient 22 points on 10-of-18 shooting. Ish Massoud made the most of his homecoming, scoring 15 points, none bigger than the baseline jumper to put the Cats up 3 late and give Nowell sole possession of the tournament assist record.
Nae’Qwan Tomlin wasn’t perfect, but the NYC native still put up 11 points and grabbed 7 rebounds while adding 2 blocks on the defensive end. Cam Carter added 12 to round out the Wildcats in double figures.
But the fact is, those numbers will all merely be footnotes to a legendary performance from Nowell, who will need some rest and quick healing before K-State’s Elite 8 game on Saturday. No matter what happens in that one, though, Nowell has solidified his spot in Wildcat basketball lore.
Kansas State jumped out to an early 5-0 lead thanks to a three from Desi Sills, one of six different Wildcats (!) to knock down a 3 in the first half. But Michigan State shot almost just as well from deep and mostly matched Kansas State, even after David N’Guessan (!!) hit only his fifth three of the season.
It was great to see Keyontae Johnson get involved quickly, scoring 7 of his 22 points in the opening 10 minutes. Ish Massoud also looked great in his homecoming, knocking down 2 of his 3 3-point attempts and even attacking the basket uncharacteristically hard to put up 7 of his 15 points in the first half.
Mostly, though, it was the Markquis Nowell Show once again. The dynamic Harlem point guard could not be stopped, whether he was driving inside and finding teammates or just dishing out incredible assists from the perimeter so smoothly it was impossible to say when his dribble ended and his pass began.
Nowell dished out 10 assists before halftime and hit a layup after Michigan State stretched its lead to four points for the first time. At one point, Nowell left what looked like a simple finger roll short and then left us wondering if maybe he had planned it after he took advantage of an offensive rebound by knocking down a 3, because would you really put that past him?
Speaking of offensive rebounds, though, they once again became a problem for Kansas State as Michigan State grabbed seven in the first half alone. The Spartans also took advantage of a foul discrepancy by knocking down 9 of 9 free throws, helping them stay close while going through a field goal drought of more than four minutes.
An 8-0 Kansas State run put the good guys back in front and they led by as much as 6 after Ish’s second 3. Cam Carter’s 3 made it a 5-point lead at halftime and it could have been more if the officials had called an obvious push against Desi Sills.
Nae’Qwan Tomlin opened the second-half scoring with a thunderous dunk following an offensive rebound and Kansas State’s defense appeared to come out with some extra energy. Unfortunately, Tomlin missed a dunk attempt that would have given the Cats a 10-point lead and MSU immediately answered by knocking down a 3 at the other end.
Disaster struck around the 15:00 mark when Nowell rolled his right ankle on a drive and had to be carried off the court, unable to put any weight on that leg. Michigan State immediately went on a 7-2 run to take a 55-52 lead while K-State’s athletic trainers put all the tape on Nowell’s ankle.
In the arena where the late Willis Reed famously hobbled back onto the court despite a muscle tear to inspire the Knicks to win Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals Nowell returned to the floor and immediately hit an absurd off-balance 3 with the shot clock running down. Then he stripped a Spartan down low and led a fast break that ended with Cam Carter making a layup to put the Cats ahead 57-55.
Both teams struggled to stop the dribble-drive, and Michigan State just kept burying threes as the game stayed close, with Cam Carter matching Joey Hauser to tie the game at 70 just before the under-8 timeout. Following David N’Guessan’s layup to make it 72-70 Kansas State, the two teams had combined to make 11 of the last 13 field goals, with both misses coming from Michigan State on 3-pointers on the same possession.
Another 3 by Ish and a Nae’Qwan Tomlin bucket gave Kansas State some breathing room with a 7-point lead, but it didn’t last long. Michigan State capitalized on a questionable fifth foul call against Desi Sills to take a 77-75 advantage before Massoud buried another ridiculously deep 3 off a pass from his NYC buddy, Nowell.
Markquis Nowell deserved to be the hero who made the game-winning shot for Kansas State, but alas, his DEEP 3 went long and a layup just before the buzzer came up short. In between, Tyson Walker hit a runner over Cam Carter to tie the game at 82, forcing the first overtime of the tournament.
Michigan State’s A.J. Hoggard scored a game-high 25 points and looked nearly unstoppable driving to his left, especially in overtime. But of course, the Cats had the answer, and Markquis found Keyontae Johnson from the logo for an astonishing alley oop that Johson converted behind his head, giving K-State a 94-92 lead before MSU helpfully missed a free throw.
It was only fitting that the game ended not with a Michigan State desperation attempt, but with Nowell stealing the ball and going the length of the floor to hit a buzzer beating reverse layup.
Tennessee or FAU will be Kansas State’s opponent on Saturday.
THREE IN THE KEY
- Taking care of the ball: Kansas State picked a great time to post a season-low 5 turnovers. Of course that all starts with Nowell, but give credit to the other Wildcats as well for eliminating the careless turnovers that were so costly at times this season. Every one of those extra possessions was needed.
- 3-point shooting returns: Michigan State shot it quite well from 3, making 13-25, led by Joey Hauser’s 4-9 and Jaden Akins’ 4-5 on their way to 18 and 14 points, respectively. Remarkably K-State was almost just as good, making 11-of-24. In a tournament where teams shot a little better than 30% from 3 last weekend, it was a sight to see.
- Back to the Elite 8: Most of our readers probably weren’t alive the last time Kansas State won an Elite 8 game, back in 1964. Since then, the Cats have lost 7 straight in this round, including games that weren’t too close in 2010 and 2018. Surely the Cats are due to end that streak, right?