NEW YORK — In a game where Kansas State point guard Markquis Nowell controlled an offense better than, arguably, any other point guard to ever lace up sneakers in an NCAA Tournament game, it was a play where he appeared to lose command of the team that summed up one of the all-time great performances — and one of the all-time memorable plays — in tourney history.
The 5-foot-8 Harlem native dazzled in his hometown and on one of the biggest stages college basketball has to offer, Madison Square Garden, scoring 20 points and dishing out an NCAA Tournament-record 19 assists to lift the third-seeded Wildcats to a 98-93 overtime victory over No. 7 Michigan State to advance to the Elite Eight in the East Region.
The Sweet 16 battle already was hurtling toward instant classic status, with the two teams engaged in a see-saw affair before finding themselves in a 92-92 deadlock with 60 seconds remaining in the overtime. It was at that moment when Nowell, with 17 assists and ball in tow, looked over to, and then seemingly was arguing with, head coach Jerome Tang about the play to run in one of the most important possessions in Wildcat history.
That “spat” ended up being a Trojan horse, with Nowell quickly ending the dialogue with Tang and immediately flinging a no-look, alley-oop pass that was slammed home on a reverse dunk by Keyontae Johnson, giving the Wildcats a lead they would not relinquish.
As it turned out, as we should have known given his 17 assists and 18 points prior to the play, what looked chaotic was actually a stroke of improvised genius.
“I mean, it was just a basketball play between me and Keyontae,” Nowell said about whether that “argument” with coach was designed. “We knew how Michigan State plays defense. They play high up, and Keyontae just told me, we got eye contact, and he was like, lob, lob. I jsut threw it up, and he made a great play.”
Keyontae made a great play, yes. For 45 minutes, Nowell made almost all the plays for Kansas State. The Wildcats’ 43 points on 61.5 percent shooting in the first half were almost all on the shoulders of Nowell, as he assisted on 10 of K-State’s 16 field goals in those 20 minutes while making two field goals of his own.
Nowell played 42:39 out of a possible 45 minutes, with the only missed time coming when he turned his right ankle early in the second half. As he remained on the floor in pain clutching his ankle, and eventually helped to the bench by the training staff to get his ankle re-taped, the Wildcats’ two-point lead before Nowell’s injury became a three-point deficit upon his return after 2:21 of game action.
K-State’s first possession with Nowell back on the court appeared headed for disaster until he chased down a loose ball before turning and flinging a desperation shot from the right wing at the rim with the shot clock approaching 0.0.
Clearly still feeling the effects of his ankle, Nowell hobbled while running back to play defense, reminiscent of another diminutive point guard, Hall-of-Famer, Isiah Thomas, when he limped back on defense during the third quarter of Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers when he scored a whopping 25 points in that stanza against the Showtime Lakers.
As fate would have it, Thomas was inside Madison Square Garden, sitting next to former Michigan State great Mateen Cleaves. Unlike Thomas’ epic performance in defeat, Nowell’s hobbled gait only added to the lore of the victory that he led the Wildcats to tonight.
“When I saw Markquis go down and hobble off, I knew he wasn’t staying off,” Tang said. “That dude didn’t come here to be injured on his last college game, so I knew he was coming back in.”
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Thursday evening’s game, with all photos taken by ALOST senior photographer Robert Cole. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 25 pictures in total.