Kansas State came up a play or two short of punching its ticket to the Final Four against 9th-seeded Florida Atlantic, falling 79-76 in the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional Final Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
Though each of K-State’s last three coaches has reached the Elite 8, none has been able to get past tough mid-major opponents to break through to the Final Four. None, so far. The drought for the Wildcats now enters its 60th year.
A back-and-forth game that for a time seemed to be in K-State’s hands got away because of a prolonged offensive drought. After a three-point make by Florida Atlantic’s Alijah Martin put K-State in a 70-64 hole, and Keyontae Johnson fouled out trying to gain rebounding position on K-State’s next possession, the Wildcats’ chances looked dim. Alijah Martin canned both free throws to give the Owls a 72-64 lead with 2:44 to play, making a comeback that much more unlikely.
Fighting for their tournament dreams, the ‘Cats made a game of it down the stretch, though. Ismael Massoud hit two free throws, and Markquis Nowell and Cam Carter each hit clutch threes, and K-State found itself within 1, 75-74, with 24 seconds remaining. After two more FAU free throws, Nowell threw a pass underneath to Tomlin, who laid it in to cut the score to 77-76.
With 9 seconds remaining, K-State could not get a steal on the inbound play, and after Michael Forrest gave the Owls a 79-76 advantage, Ismael Massoud was unable to get a final shot away in time.
The key stretch of the game came after Nowell hit a three-pointer to give K-State a 63-57 advantage with 8:39 to play. The Cats would score only one point from then until the 2:30 mark, allowing FAU to stage a 15-1 run, turning a 6-point K-State lead into a 72-64 Owl advantage.
In a game in which the Wildcats got outplayed on the glass and out-shot from the three-point line and the free throw line, they still had every opportunity to win. K-State came from four points down at the half to build a 52-47 lead following a three-point jumper by Keyontae Johnson less than five minutes into the second period. Momentum seemed to have finally swung the Cats’ way.
But though they held the Owls scoreless over the next two minutes, K-State failed to stretch its advantage. The Wildcats missed three shots, including a layup, and turned the ball over twice in the next five possessions. Worse, Johnson picked up his fourth foul diving for a loose ball and had to go to the bench with 14:10 to play.
Three possessions later, FAU cut the lead to two on a Bryan Greenlee three-pointer from the corner, but Markquis Nowell answered, and then assisted Nae’Qwan Tomline on a Layup to establish a 57-50 Wildcat advantage. The Wildcats held a 4-point lead until Brandon Weatherspoon drilled an open three-pointer with 7:03 remaining.
With the score 63-62, Coach Tang could wait no longer. He put Johnson back in the lineup, but Keyontae missed badly short on the next possession. Then, though FAU missed a three-point look, Vladislav Goldin grabbed the offensive rebound. He turned aggressively into Sills, who fell backward. But the referees did not blow the whistle, and the 7-footer dunked over the prone Sills to give his team a 64-63 lead.
K-State would trail the rest of the way, as they stuck at 63 points for nearly five minutes.
Markquis Nowell did nothing to diminish his stellar performance in the NCAA tournament, as he scored 30 points, dished 12 assists, and grabbed 5 steals. He was 5-11 from beyond the arc, but struggled shooting over Goldin on drives, making only 3-10 from inside the arc.
Tomlin was the only other Wildcat to reach double-figures, scoring 14. He also led K-State with 6 rebounds. Johnson, who played only 18 minutes before fouling out, made 4-7 field goal attempts, but missed all three of his free throw attempts, and finished with 9 points. Little things, it turns out, are big.
If you are looking for a stat that made the biggest difference in the game, rebounding was it. The Wildcats got clobbered 44-22 on the glass. They almost offset the deficit by forcing 22 turnovers and only committing 12. Almost. But “almost” just gets you a sad trip home.
K-State also made only 12-of-18 free throws, while FAU knocked down 18-of-22.
Desi Sills also contributed 9 points in his final game as a Wildcat.
FAU had four players in double figures, Led by Alijah Martin’s 17 and Bryan Greenlee’s 16, which included 4-6 from beyond the arc.
Three in the Key
- Getting close and falling short is the worst, especially after it seems you had slain the biggest dragons in the earlier rounds. By now, K-State fans are experts at that feeling. The 2010 team won an epic double-overtime Sweet 16 game against Xavier, only to fall to Butler. After Barry Brown’s miracle layup got K-State past Kentucky and into the Elite 8 in 2018, the Cats fell two nights later to No. 11 seed Loyola Chicago. This year, after beating tournament stalwarts Kentucky and Michigan in epic fashion, they again fell short to an upstart mid-major, in 9-seed FAU. It’s frustrating, to say the least. All you can do hope Coach Tang, his staff, and future Wildcat teams can keep beating on that door until they kick it down and burst through.
- The next team to get a shot for K-State will look quite different from this one. A squad made up of senior transfers and one absolutely stellar holdover from the Bruce Weber era unexpectedly, almost unbelievably, got within three points of the Final Four. Though whispers from inside the program suggest that redshirt players Taj Manning and Jerrell Colbert have been unbelievable in practice, it will likely be a long, long time before we see as dynamic a combination as Markquis and Keyontae. Desi Sills and the rest of the outgoing seniors contributed mightily, too. All of them made incredible contributions in their short time, and replacing them will be much more than a matter of just reloading.
- Though the season ends in the disappointment of missed opportunity, every rational Cat fan should appreciate the performance this squad and its first-year coaching staff turned in. From being picked last—and receiving only 3 points more than the minimum—in the preseason Big 12 Conference poll, they beat Kansas and Texas, swept Baylor, and finished in a tie for third in what was considered the toughest league in the country. They knocked out John Calipari and Tom Izzo in the tournament. And they were a loose ball here, a rebound there, a made free throw elsewhere from ending a 59-year absence from the Final Four. Maybe more importantly, they rejuvenated K-State basketball, Bramlage Coliseum, and the K-State community with an exciting, athletic brand of basketball and a team built on exceptional cohesiveness. The foundation has been laid. Coach Tang has proven he has tactical chops to match his incredible charisma, and the tournament run will surely pay dividends on the recruiting trail. The future is bright. Expect to win.