GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Markquis Nowell never lost faith, not when Kansas State had hardly anyone left on the roster for a new coach nor when the Wildcats were picked last in the Big 12.
“He always believed,” coach Jerome Tang said, “And he helped me believe.”
And that led Kansas State to this decidedly hard-to-believe moment: headed for New York’s Madison Square Garden, ticket in hand for the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.
Nowell scored 23 of his 27 points after halftime, and Kansas State overcame a horrid start from outside by hitting a couple of clutch 3-pointers while topping Kentucky 75-69 in Sunday’s second round.
Tang has gone from having just two players on the roster to having a matching number of NCAA wins — sending the Wildcats (25-9) to their first Sweet 16 since 2018.
“Dudes,” Tang said. “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.”
Kansas State faces No. 7 seed Michigan State in the East Region semifinals on Thursday.
Kansas State missed its first 13 3-pointers and sat at 2 for 17 when the outside shots started falling. Nowell buried a step-back 3 against Cason Wallace to pull within 60-59, soon followed by Ismael Massoud from the right wing for a 64-62 edge with 2:21 left.
Keyontae Johnson added another from that side near the Kansas State bench, making it 67-62 with 1:23 left and creating a jolt with the kind of margin that felt massive considering nearly all of the second half had been played within four points.
The 5-foot-8 Nowell, a third-team Associated Press All-American, played a fearless floor game. He was part of two memorable plays before halftime: a behind-the-back transition pass to Johnson for a dunk, and then a look-away alley-oop to Nae’Qwan Tomlin on the baseline to end the half.
He hit three 3s, the first over Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe after the 0-for-13 start and another with his left foot on the “March Madness” midcourt logo.
Tshiebwe had 25 points and 18 rebounds for sixth-seeded Kentucky (22-12), which led by eight early in the second half. But the Wildcats never could stretch that lead nor make their own big outside shots (4 for 20).
“Tough way to end,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We had some guys really fight like crazy and then had a couple of guys offensively not play their game the way they played all year. But that stuff happens in this tournament.”
Kansas State’s path isn’t nearly so common.
Tang left Baylor after a long stint on Scott Drew’s staff to take over a program that last went to the tournament in 2019 and had three straight losing seasons.
Yet after a summer of transfer-portal work, the Wildcats thrived right away. And Tang’s bets paid off in a number of ways Sunday.
There was Johnson, who transferred from Florida after collapsing in a game in December 2020 and hadn’t played since.
There was Virginia Tech transfer big man David N’Guessan, who played multiple late possessions with his right heel out of his shoe — yet still had the tipout offensive rebound that led to Johnson’s 3.
And there was Massoud, who transferred from Wake Forest before Tang’s arrival and joined Nowell in sticking around this year. He made his huge 3 about 30 minutes from his first college campus.
“Ish stepped up, Keyontae stepped up, David stepped up,” Nowell said. “We all stepped up in those moments and we live for those moments.”
For the other set of Wildcats, it marked another earlier-than-hoped-for exit from March Madness.
Tshiebwe had 25 rebounds i n the first-round win against Providence for the most in any tournament game since 1977, and the two-time AP All-American was again a force inside. Wallace had 15 of his 21 points after halftime, including multiple times when the freshman used his 6-4 frame against Nowell inside.
But No. 2 scorer Antonio Reeves (14.6 points) managed five points on 1-for-15 shooting, including 1-for-10 on 3s. The only make came with 8 seconds left.
When it was over, KSU players hugged each other at midcourt, with guard Desi Sills — another transfer, fittingly — talking animatedly to nearby cameras as he walked around the court.
Later, after most had left the court, Johnson was still hanging around behind the bench to sign autographs. And Tomlin squeezed in one more pass for high-fives of his own before running off with a triumphant point to a cross-court pocket of KSU fans.
Kentucky: The past year of wild emotional swings started with a devastating first-round exit at the hands of 15-seed Saint Peter’s. Calipari had been pushing his team to play loose and free entering this tournament. Still, it wasn’t enough to get Kentucky back to the second weekend for the first time since an Elite Eight run in 2019, ending what Jacob Toppin called “a roller coaster for sure” of a year.
Kansas State: Nowell likes March. He went for 17 points and 14 assists in Friday’s first-round win against Montana State. And as Kansas State outscored Kentucky 19-9 down the stretch, Nowell had 11 and went 8 for 8 at the line.
N’Guessan, a 6-9 forward, played 74 seconds with his heel coming out of his right shoe before he was finally able to fix it during a late stoppage.
“I thought the referees were going to do something after like three possessions,” N’Guessan said. “I was still wiggling around with one shoe on.”