Markquis Nowell would not let his team lose.
Nowell, the spark-plug 5-foot-8 point guard for Kansas State, turned in one of the best performances of the NCAA tournament in a heart-stopping 75-69 victory over Kentucky on Sunday in Greensboro.
Whether he was hitting 3-pointers from the midcourt logo or dishing off highlight reel assists to his teammates, Nowell had a counter for every blow Kentucky delivered. He finished with 27 points, nine assists and three steals to send Kentucky home and bring Kansas State to the Sweet 16 after missing the tournament in the three previous seasons.
In a game where his team struggled to make outside jumpers, the speedy Nowell was able to penetrate the UK defense and navigate among the trees. Even as Kentucky All-American big man Oscar Tshiebwe dominated on the glass, Nowell’s ability to get into the paint and dish to teammates kept Kansas State afloat during an anemic 0-for-12 first half shooting performance from beyond the arc.
K-State’s defense helped, too. Kentucky turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, but came out with a 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, got out on the break and was getting plenty of easy buckets in transition.
After having the lead at halftime, K-State’s lead quickly turned into a 39-31 deficit less than four minutes into the half.
But Kansas State would not be deterred. K-State was picked to finish last in the Big 12 entering Jerome Tang’s first season as head coach, but this team has continually out-performed expectations. What was an eight-point deficit to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA tournament?
K-State responded with an 8-0 run of its own, sparking an evenly-matched game over the final 13 minutes of regulation.
But the Kansas State side made more plays down the stretch. Nowell drilled a 3 from the logo to tie the game at 54-54 with 6:10 to play. A few minutes later, after Kentucky had taken a four-point lead, Nowell drilled a step-back triple to cut UK’s lead to 60-59 with 3:33 remaining.
Nowell later hit two free throws to put his team ahead and assisted on clutch 3-pointers from Ismael Massoud and Keyontae Johnson that put K-State ahead for good.
Johnson’s step-back at the 1:23 mark was the dagger.
While 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 Naeqwan Tomlin posted 12 apiece.
On the Kentucky side, Tshiebwe, the 2022 national player of the year, posted 25 points and 18 rebounds in what may prove to be his final game in a college uniform. Cason Wallace had 21 points and nine rebounds and Chris Livingston had 11, but Antonio Reeves had a brutal afternoon.
Reeves, UK’s second-leading scorer and best outside shooter, finished a miserable 1-of-15 from the field, including a 1-of-10 mark from beyond the arc. The only shot he hit was his last, a 3-pointer with just six seconds left on the clock.
Kentucky was just 4-of-20 on 3-pointers and finished the game with 16 costly turnovers.
Another early NCAA tournament exit for Kentucky
It’s been a rough three-year stretch for John Calipari’s Kentucky program.
Calipari went to the Elite Eight, the Final Four and then won the national championship in his first three years on the job. In the seven seasons that followed, Calipari coached the Wildcats to a national runner-up finish, a Final Four, two Elite Eights and a Sweet 16.
The last three seasons, however, have been nowhere near that lofty standard. Kentucky missed the tournament altogether by finishing 9-16 in a miserable 2021 campaign, had an embarrassing loss in the first round to No. 15 seed St. Peter’s last year and then fell in the Round of 32 this year.
Kentucky was ranked in the Top 5 when the season began but never lived up to expectations. UK lost three of its first four SEC games and at one point was 16-9 overall with a 7-5 record in SEC play. The Wildcats played better through the month of 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 an ugly offensive performance. The Wildcats could not do the same on Sunday vs. Kansas State.
The Wildcats are going to look different next season, as has become the custom for Calipari’s teams. Kentucky’s 2023 recruiting class includes four five-star prospects and is ranked No. 1 in the country. The Wildcats won’t lack for talent and the pressure will be on Calipari yet again to deliver a much better postseason result.