The Kansas State Wildcats started the first Big 12 Conference game of the season shooting 1-11 from the floor and falling behind by a 17-3 margin Saturday evening in Bramlage Coliseum. Then, when it seemed the Cats (12-1, 1-0 Big 12) had pulled off the improbable comeback, West Virginia’s Kedrian Johnson buried an open 3-point look after Tre Mitchell’s miss to tie the game at 66-all and force overtime. In the end, K-State’s Markquis Nowell made play after play to cement a 82-76 overtime victory over the No. 24 Mountaineers (10-3, 0-1 Big 12).
The outcome seemed laughably improbable through the first 8 minutes of play. The Wildcats could not score, would not rebound, and did not keep the Mountaineers from attacking the paint repeatedly as the visitors built a commanding lead and made K-State look incapable of competing, much winning the game. With K-State’s most experienced post player, David N’Guessan, unavailable due to an injury suffered in practice on Friday, West Virginia’s Jimmy Bell Jr. bulldozed his way to 6 of West Virginia’s first 8 points. K-State was inept in just about every phase of the game, early.
The Cats eventually settled in by getting their own big, Abayomi “Bebe” Iyiola going. Playing for the injured N’Guessan, he scored 8 points in the first half and 14 in the game. He was 6-7 from the field, blocked a shot, and led the Wildcats with 8 rebounds. On a night when one team or the other was bound to regret its awful free throw shooting performance (more on that later), Iyiola knocked down a pair with 13 seconds left in regulation to give K-State a 66-63 lead. Turns out, anything less would not have been enough.
Markquis Nowell was the key, though. The 5-8 senior played 43 minutes, scoring 23 points and dishing out 10 assists. Yet neither of those stats may have constituted his biggest impact on the outcome. He also recorded an incredible 7 (yes, seven) steals. Many of those came late in the game, when the margin was within one possession. Also, he contributed mightily to getting the Mountaineers into foul trouble. In the first half, he drove on the ‘Eers’ leading scorer, Erik Stevenson, and not only drew contact, but managed to earn a flagrant-1 for contact to the face. Those two fouls on the same possession sent Stevenson to the bench. Late in the second half, Stevenson fouled out, thinking he had only three fouls at the time. He scored only 7 points in 22 minutes of play. Moreover, he was only 3-10 shooting and committed 2 turnovers.
Nowell turned the same trick later on Joe Toussaint, who pulled Markquis’s shirt during a midcourt scramble for a loose ball. In the end, Nowell’s active hands and hustle play, along with his amazing court vision and ability to force contact (Nowell shot 13 free throws), made him an X-factor that West Virginia could not match.
Nowell’s 23 points led all scorers. Keyontae Johnson added 18, Nae’Qwan Tomlin had 11, including a couple of his now-trademark high-flying dunks off the lob, and Desi Sills chipped in 9.
After a fast start, Bell only finished with 8 points. That is both a tribute to the job Iyiola did after some defensive adjustments, and an indictment of the big man’s free throw shooting (2-8). The 6-10, 285-pount transfer from Moberly Area Community College will obviously be a load for Big 12 opponents, nevertheless. Three Mountaineers reached double figures, led by Tre Mitchell, who dropped in 16.
Three in the Key
- This game was almost lost on...the inability to rebound. K-State was down 32-21 on the scoreboard at halftime. That was a minor miracle after the Cats’ miserable shooting start, but even moreso because they were getting annihilated on the boards to the tune of a 31-12 deficit. You would think a team could accidentally rebound enough misses to avoid that kind of thrashing on the glass. Here’s guessing Coach Tang and the staff made rebounding a point of emphasis at halftime. The guys obviously listened. The effort was much better after the break, with K-State winning the battle 24-19 the rest of the way.
- This game was almost lost on...missed free throws. K-State made 8 of 9 in overtime, after making 4 of 4 to close out regulation. Before that, the Wildcats were an abysmal 9-21 from the stripe. For the game, the Cats were 21-34 (61.8%). Combine the inattention to rebounding with the poor charity tossing, and it’s somewhat surprising this game found its way to overtime and, eventually, into the win column. It did not hurt K-State’s cause that the Mountaineers made only 20-38 (52.6%) of their own free throw attempts.
- This game was ultimately won on...clutch plays by Nowell, key adjustments in effort and execution, and winning the war of attrition. West Virginia committed 27 fouls on the evening ,to K-State’s 26. But three Mountaineers fouled out, including their leading scorer. K-State only lost Iyiola and Ismael Massoud. Both of them contributed meaningfully in the game, but K-State got enough good minutes out of Tykei Greene (who had 2 points, 5 rebounds, and an assist) to be better able to absorb the losses than West Virginia.
Things get no easier in the Big 12. Tang’s Gang travels to No. 6 Texas on Tuesday, January 3, at 8:00 CST. The broadcast is on the infernal Longhorn Network. Send your complaints to the Big 12 office now.