Markquis Nowell wouldn’t let his team lose.
Nowell, the 5-foot-8 Kansas State point guard, had one of the best performances of the NCAA Tournament in a stunning 75-69 victory over Kentucky on Sunday in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Whether he was hitting 3-pointers from the midfield logo or providing assists for his teammates, Nowell had a counter for every shot Kentucky landed. He finished with 27 points, nine assists and three steals to send Kentucky home and lead Kansas State to the Sweet 16 after missing the tournament the previous three seasons.
In a game where his side struggled to make outside jumpers, the speedy Nowell was able to penetrate the British defense and navigate through the trees. Even though Kentucky All-American big man Oscar Tshiebwe was dominating on the glass, Nowell’s ability to get into the paint and the dish to teammates kept Kansas State afloat during an anemic 0 shooting performance. for 12 beyond the arc.
K-State’s defense also helped. Kentucky turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, but came out with renewed focus to open the second half. K-State had a 29-26 lead at the break, but Kentucky opened the second half on a 13-0 run. Kentucky, a team that struggles in the half-court offense, came out on the break and were getting plenty of easy buckets in transition.
K-State’s halftime lead quickly turned into a 39-31 deficit less than four minutes into the second half.
But Kansas State would not be discouraged. K-State was chosen to finish last in the Big 12 in Jerome Tang’s first season as head coach, but this team has consistently exceeded expectations. What is an eight-point deficit against Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament?
K-State responded with an 8-0 streak, triggering a tied game in the final 13 minutes of regulation time.
But the Kansas State team made more plays in the streak. Nowell drilled a 3 from the logo to tie the game at 54-54 with 6:10 remaining. Minutes later, after Kentucky had taken a four-point lead, Nowell drilled a backhand triple to cut Great Britain’s lead to 60-59 with 3:33 remaining.
Nowell then hit two free throws to put his team ahead and assisted Ismael Massoud and Keyontae Johnson on the clutch 3-pointer that put K-State ahead for good.
Johnson’s pullback at the 1:23 mark was the dagger.
As Nowell led the way, Johnson was one of three others to score in double figures for Kansas State. Johnson had 13 points while Desi Sills and Nae’qwan Tomlin had 12 each.
For Kentucky, Tshiebwe, the 2022 National Player of the Year, had 25 points and 18 rebounds in what could turn out to be his last game in college uniform. Cason Wallace had 21 points and nine rebounds and Chris Livingston had 11, but Antonio Reeves had a brutal afternoon.
Reeves, the UK’s second top scorer and top outside shooter, finished a miserable 1-for-15 from the field, including a 1-for-10 mark from beyond the arc. The only shot he hit was his last, a 3-pointer with just six seconds left.
Kentucky was just 4 of 20 on 3-pointers and finished the game with 16 costly turnovers.
Another early exit from the NCAA Tournament for Kentucky
It’s been a tough three years for John Calipari’s Kentucky program.
Calipari went to the Elite Eight, Final Four, and then won the national championship in his first three years on the job. Over the next seven seasons, Calipari coached the Wildcats to a national second-place finish, a Final Four, two Elite Eights and a Sweet 16.
The last three seasons, however, have fallen far short of that high standard. Kentucky missed the tournament completely finishing 9-16 in a miserable 2021 campaign, suffered an embarrassing first-round loss to No. 15 seed St. Peter’s last year, then fell to the round of 16. final this year.
Kentucky was ranked in the top five at the start of the season, but never lived up to expectations. UK lost three of their first four SEC games and at one point were 16-9 overall with a 7-5 record in SEC play. The Wildcats played better through February, but lost twice to Vanderbilt in early March, including in the SEC Tournament.
UK earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and held off No. 11 Providence in the first round despite a lousy offensive performance. The Wildcats couldn’t do the same Sunday against Kansas State.
The Wildcats will look different next season, as has become the custom for Calipari teams. Kentucky’s 2023 recruiting class includes four five-star prospects and is ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Wildcats will have no shortage of talent and the pressure will once again be on Calipari to deliver a much better playoff result.