GREENSBORO, N.C. – Clutch 3-pointers by junior Ismael Massoud and senior Keyontae Johnson in the last 2:21 helped lift No. 15/13 Kansas State to a trip to New York City for the Sweet 16 with a 75-69 win over Kentucky on Sunday in the second round of the East Regional before 16,517 fans at the Greensboro Coliseum.
K-State (25-9) advances to the East Regional Semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City, where the Wildcats will play No. 7 seed Michigan State (21-12) on Thursday, March 23 at 5:30 p.m., CT on TBS. The Spartans defeated No. 2 seed Marquette, 69-60, also on Sunday.
It will be the 18th trip to the Sweet 16 for the Wildcats, including the first since 2018. The win was the 25th of the season, as they became the eighth team in school history and the first since 2018-19 to collect a 25-win season.
“I thought that we could be an NCAA Tournament team,” said Tang. “That was my goal. Quis (Markquis Nowell) and I went to lunch one day, and I said, ‘Quis, I’m going to do everything in my power to put a team together to get to the NCAA Tournament.’ He said, ‘Coach, I don’t care if we have five dudes. We’re going to the tournament because Kemba Walker won a national championship with, I think three freshmen and two sophomores. Whatever it was. But he knew, right? I was like, man, with that kind of confidence, it just inspired me to work harder and our staff to work harder. He always believed it, and he helped me believe.”
Down 62-61 with 2:43 to play, Massoud gave the Wildcats the lead for good with a deep 3-pointer from the right wing with 2:21 to play that was followed by another deep triple from Johnson on an offensive rebound from junior David N’Guessan at the 1:23 mark. Senior Markquis Nowell continued the 8-0 spurt with a pair of free throws that extended the lead to 69-62 with 37 seconds.
Kentucky (22-12) was able to get a basket from senior Oscar Tschiebwe, who posted a double-double of 25 points and 18 rebounds, to close the gap to 69-64 with 23 seconds, but Nowell and fellow senior Desi Sills clinched the game at the free throw line with a combined 6 consecutive makes.
Four Wildcats scored in double figures led by a special performance from the Harlem native Nowell, who was one assist shy of posting consecutive double-doubles in his first two NCAA Tournament games, as he finished with a game-high 27 points, 9 assists and 3 steals in playing all but 16 seconds. It was the most points by a Wildcat in an NCAA Tournament game since Rodney McGruder scored 30 points vs. Southern Miss on March 15, 2012.
It was Nowell’s team-leading 12th 20-point game, while it was the 31st in his career and 15th as a Wildcat.
After his 17-point, 14-assist performance in the win over 14-seed Montana State on Friday night, Nowell combined for 44 points and 23 assists in his first two NCAA Tournament. He is one of two players since 1990, along with Murray State’s Ja Morant, to combine for 40 points and 20 assists before the Sweet 16.
“It still feels surreal,” said Nowell. “But I’ve got to give all the honor and the glory to God Himself, man. I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and my coaching staff. They put together a good game plan, and we believed in it, and I’m just happy we got the victory today.”
Johnson recovered from a tough start to finish with 13 points, including 7 points in the second half, to go with 4 rebounds and 3 assists. He has now scored in double figures in all but one game. Junior Nae’Qwan Tomlin, who led the way in the first half with 8 points, and Sills each added 12 points.
After a shaking start offensively, in which, the Wildcats made just 5 of their first 16 field goal attempts, including going 0-fer on 7 3-point attempts, the team settled down to hit on 48.1 percent (26-of-54) from the field, including 63.6 percent (21-of-33) from inside the 3-point line with 40 points in the paint. They were nearly flawless from the free throw line, converting on 18 of 22 attempts, including a 10-of-11 effort from Nowell.
Kentucky was led by Tshiebwe and freshman Cason Wallace, who combined for 46 of its 69 points. Tshiebwe scored his 25 points on 8-of-13 field goal attempts and 9-of-11 free throws to go with his game-high 18 boards, while Wallace scored 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting with 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals.
Although Kentucky has a commanding lead in the all-time series (9-2), K-State has won the last 2 meetings in the NCAA Tournament (2018, 2023).
HOW IT HAPPENED
The teams got off to a slow start, combining to go 3 of 16 from the field, but it was Kentucky, which got consecutive baskets, that took a 6-3 lead into the first media timeout at the 15:59 mark. Despite its shooting woes, K-State got to within a possession twice, including 9-7 at a layup by junior Nae’Qwan Tomlin, but point guard Cason Wallace went on a personal 6-0 run to extend the lead to 15-7 at the 11:28 mark.
Down 17-9 after a Kentucky basket, K-State was able to close the gap to 17-15 after a quick 6-0 run that was capped by a second-chance layup by Tomlin. The run started with a goaltend call on a jumper by senior Keyontae Johnson and a pair of free throws by senior Desi Sills. The teams traded buckets over the next few minutes, including a 3-pointer by C.J. Frederick that pushed the lead to 20-15, but a layup by senior Markquis Nowell once again got K-State to within a possession at 22-19 with 5:17 before halftime.
K-State was able to close the half on a 12-4 run to take a 29-26 advantage into the break. The run was started by a dunk and 2 free throws by Johnson and included a basket by Tomlin. After a driving layup by Nowell, Tomlin ended the half with an alley-oop dunk on a feed by Nowell as the clock expired.
K-State extended its lead to 31-26 on the first possession of the second half on a layup by Tomlin from Johnson, but Kentucky responded with 9 straight points to retake the lead at 35-31 and force head coach Jerome Tang to call his first timeout with 17:27 to play. The timeout didn’t seem to help the K-State cause, as the run grew to 13-0 for a 39-31 advantage. A driving layup by Sills finally ended the spurt right before the media timeout.
The Sills layup sparked an 8-0 run by K-State, as the Wildcats knotted the score at 39-all after the team’s first 3-pointer of the game from Nowell. The teams traded points over the next few minutes and stood at 43-all at the second media timeout with 11:52 remaining. Layups by Johnson and Nowell gave K-State a 47-43 lead and forced a timeout by head coach John Calipari near the midway point of the half.
The timeout sparked Kentucky as the Wildcats scored 7 of the next 9 points to retake the lead at 50-49. A layup by Nowell returned the lead to K-State at 51-50 at the third media timeout with 7:20 to play. Two free throws and a basket gave Kentucky a 54-51 before Nowell tied it with a long distance 3-pointer.
Kentucky was able to use a 6-2 run to take a 60-56 lead with just under 4 remaining but Nowell knocked down his third triple of the day to pull K-State to within 60-59 right before the last media timeout with 3:20 left then gave the Wildcats a lead at 61-60 with a pair of free throws.
After Cason Wallace’s layup returned the lead to Kentucky with 2:43 to play, 3-pointers by Ismael Massoud and Johnson ignited an 8-0 run that gave K-State the lead for good at 69-62 lead with 39 seconds remaining. Tshiebwe broke the run with a dunk to close the gap to 69-64 but Nowell and Sills were able to salt away the game at the line, making 6 consecutive free throws.
IN THEIR WORDS
Head Coach Jerome Tang
On the game…
“First and foremost, I would just like to thank the good Lord for this opportunity and the blessings that he has given us. I want to thank my wife. She just puts up with so much, and these young men across here, we’ve asked a lot of them, and every time they’ve delivered. I’m so proud of them. So proud to represent Kansas State. I’m so proud to be a part of the community of Manhattan. I’m just blessed, man. I’m so blessed.”
On having just eight turnovers…
“They’ve heard it from me enough. We’ve sorted through it. To start the half, we had three quick turnovers, right? I don’t think we turned it over again the rest of the way. So, it was huge. If we get shots up, we’re hard to beat. As long as we don’t give the other team the ball. We defended today, right? We knew that Oscar was going to get his, but we had to control everybody else. Cason Wallace had an unbelievable game, did a great job, but we felt we did a good job on the three-point shooters, and I think that was the difference in the game.”
On players making big time plays in big time moments…
“Dudes. We got dudes. That’s what it takes. I mean, people get all caught up in the coaching and all of that stuff. It’s dudes. You got to have players, and these dudes, they work. They’ve put in the time. We talked about it before this game. We’re going to trust our work, and we’ve won really good games against really good teams in really tough environments before, so we were prepared for this. I expected them to play great, and every time they shot it I thought it was going in, and so it’s just — they believe in themselves, but they don’t just do it — it’s not fake confidence, right? It’s the work that they put in, the hours they spend in the gym. All of them. I knew Ish was going to make that shot because he wants to go to New York.”
Senior Markquis Nowell
On how it feels to be going back home to New York and Madison Square Garden…
“It still feels surreal, but I’ve got to give all the honor and the glory to God Himself, man. Man, I mean, I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and my coaching staff. They put together a good game plan, and we believed in it, and I’m just happy we got the victory today.”
On looking up to Kemba Walker then having a Kemba Walker-esque moment…
“I was just in attack mode the second half because I saw how they were playing me. They were playing me for the pass because I dropped a lot of dimes in the first half. I tried to look for my own shot a little bit more and be more aggressive, and I wanted to go to New York.”
On resetting after going 0-of-12 from 3-point range in the first half…
“We just told each other — we stayed positive in the locker room when things weren’t falling. We just said that second half we were going to start hitting some shots, and we did. But it was just nothing but positive vibes going into the locker room.”
Junior Ismael Massoud
On hitting the 3-pointer that ignited the key run…
“The whole game I was just trying to do my part. Today I felt like it was a threat in the post and match the physicality of obviously Oscar and stuff like that, but I knew there would come a time, especially when we weren’t shooting the ball that well — I knew there would be a time when I would get an opportunity to make a shot, and I just had to make sure I was ready. And Quis found me, and I just let it go with no hesitation. I didn’t really think much of it until after I hit it, but just grateful Quis had trust in me to pass that ball.”
On resetting after missing the first 12 attempts from 3-point range…
“Even though the shots weren’t falling in the first half, our defense was where it needed to be. We knew if we kept defending like we were, the shots were going to fall because in the first half we got a lot of really good looks that we were all happy with, and we all have belief in each other, so we knew it was going to fall.”
On his emotions after the win…
“A lot of happiness and emotion because it took a lot for all of us to get here. From being picked last to all the workouts in the summer and for me to have that moment, it meant a lot because, you know, you never know when you have another opportunity like this. For me to be able to play my role for this team and help this team and help us accomplish our goals, it just was so much emotion that I just couldn’t contain other than crying.”
Senior Keyontae Johnson
On his emotions after the win…
“I mean, it’s really a blessing just being out here. I got emotional with my dad, everything that I’ve been through. I finally just got past that and made it to the Sweet 16. Just grateful for having the right guys around me. Quis challenged me during the game, and it was just — Ish knocking down a big three. Just shows how much we love each other and just how much freedom we have and how much we have each other.”
BEYOND THE BOXSCORE
- K-State advances to its 18th Sweet 16 in school history, including the first since 2017-18.
- K-State earns the eighth 25-win season in school history, including the first since 2017-18.
- The 25 wins by Tang are the second-most by first-year head coach in school history, trailing the 27 by Bruce Weber in 2012-13.
- K-State is now 39-35 all-time in NCAA Tournament, including 5-4 all-time in the East Regional, 8-5 in the second round and 2-1 in Greensboro, N.C. and Greensboro Coliseum.
- K-State has now won back-to-back NCAA Tournament games against Kentucky after losing 9 in a row… Kentucky still leads the all-time series 9-2, while it is tied at 2-2 in the NCAA Tournament.
- K-State scored its 75 points on 48.1 percent (28-of-54) shooting, including 23.8 percent (5-of-21) from 3-point range, while connecting on 81.8 percent (18-of-22) from 3-point range… The team has totaled 2,568 points this season, which is the fourth-most in a single season and most since 2,630 in 2017-18.
- K-State scored 40 of its 75 points in the paint, which marked the 13th time this season when scoring 40 or more points in the paint.
- K-State missed its first 13 3-point attempts before making 5 of its last 8.
- K-State registered 14 assists on 26 made field goals and now has 571 on the season to break the single-season record of 557 set by the 2012-13 team.
- K-State had just 8 turnovers in the game, which were one shy of a season-low… The Wildcats are now 19-2 when having equal or less turnovers than its opponents.
- Kentucky had a commanding 44-25 advantage on the glass, including 19 offensive rebounds which resulted in 17 second-chance points… K-State is now 5-4 when losing the rebounding battle.
- K-State led 29-26 at the half on the strength of a late 12-4 run… Six different players scored in first half, including 8 by junior Nae’Qwan Tomlin… Senior Oscar Tshiebwe led all scorers with a double-double in the first half with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
- K-State is now 15-2 this season when leading at the half.
- Four Wildcats scored in double figures, including a game-high 27 points by senior Markquis Nowell.
- Nowell scored his 27 points on 7-of-14 field goals, including 3-of-8 from 3-point range, and 10-of-11 free throws… He now has 31 games of 20 or more points, including 15 in his K-State career and his team-leading 12 this season… He has now scored in double figures in 97 career games in college, including 50 in his K-State career and 31 this season.
- Nowell added a game-high 9 assists to go with 3 steals… He now has at least 5 assists in 29 of 34 games, while he extends his single season record to 266 assists… He now has at least 3 steals in 16 games, while his 274 career steals continue to lead all active Division I players.
- Senior Keyontae Johnson scored 13 points on 5-of-14 field goals, including 1-of-4 from 3-point range, and 2-of-2 free throws, to go with 4 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal in 39 minutes… He has now scored in double figures in 71 career games, including 33 of 34 games this season.
- Junior Nae’Qwan Tomlin scored 12 points on 6-of-8 field goals to go with 6 rebounds and 2 steals in 30 minutes… He has now scored in double figures in 19 games this season.
- Senior Desi Sills scored 12 points on 3-of-5 field goals and 6-of-7 free throws to go with 4 rebounds and a steal in 29 minutes… He has scored in double figures in 65 career games, including 15 this season.
3-seed K-State (25-9) will play 7-seed Michigan State (21-11) on Thursday night at 5:30 p.m., CT on TBS in the East Regional Semifinal at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It will be the eighth all-time meeting with the Spartans, including the first in the NCAA Tournament and the first overall since 1996.
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