NEW YORK – Markquis Nowell walked the ball up the floor with the score tied in the final minute of overtime and exchanged animated hand signals with his coach, Jerome Tang.
Standing on the March Madness logo at Madison Square Garden, the 5-foot-8 Kansas State point guard who grew up in Harlem glanced at the basket for a split second and flicked a chest pass into the lane. Keyontae Johnson slipped behind the Michigan State defense, elevated with his back to the basket, grabbed the ball and slammed it down.
It was the signature play of a towering performance by the shortest player on the floor.
Nowell broke the NCAA Tournament record for assists in a game with 19, his last two on spectacular passes in the last minute of OT, and Kansas State beat Michigan State 98-93 on Thursday night in a Sweet 16 thriller.
“Today was a special one, man,” said Nowell, who fought through a second-half ankle injury. “I’ve got to give a lot to credit to my teammates for battling, for fighting through adversity when we was down. I can’t even explain how I’m feeling right now. I just know that I’m blessed and I’m grateful.”
Nowell's alley-oop to Johnson with 52 seconds left in overtime gave the Wildcats (26-9) the lead for good in this back-and-forth East Region semifinal.
“I mean, it was just a basketball play between me and Keyontae,” Nowell said. “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 just threw it up, and he made a great play.”
Michigan State cut the lead to one before Nowell bounced an inbound pass from under the basket to Ismael Massoud, who knocked down a jumper with 17 seconds left that put Kansas State ahead 96-93 and gave Nowell the assists record.
With Michigan State needing a 3 to tie, Nowell stole the ball from the Spartans' Tyson Walker and drove for a clinching layup at the buzzer. Nowell finished with 20 points and five steals in a signature performance at basketball's most famous arena that drew tweets of praise from Patrick Mahomes and Kevin Durant.
“That was a legendary display of controlling a basketball game Markquis,” Durant tweeted.
UNLV’s Mark Wade had the previous NCAA tourney assists record with 18 during the Runnin’ Rebels 1987 Final Four win over Indiana.
Tang, the energetic, 56-year-old first-year head coach who was hired to lead the Wildcats after two decades as an assistant at Baylor, gave all the credit to his senior point guard.
“Well, what really helps is that all 10 eyes on the defense have to pay attention to him, and that’s what allows everybody else to get open,” Tang said. “It’s not just that he sees it, but they all have to pay attention to him when he has the ball in his hands.”
Johnson — the Florida transfer who was sidelined for nearly two years after he collapsed on the court during a game in December 2020 — scored 22 points for the No. 3 seed Wildcats. Kansas State will face ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic on Saturday as it seeks the program's first Final Four berth since 1964.
A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 25 points for seventh-seeded Michigan State (21-13). Joey Hauser added 18 points and Walker had 16, including a layup with 5 seconds left in regulation that forced the first overtime of this year's NCAA Tournament.
Nowell turned his ankle early in the second half, was helped off the court and had it taped. Michigan State took the lead with him sidelined, and when he returned, he pushed off the ankle to bank in a 3-pointer that beat the shot clock and tied the game at 55-all.
Turns out he was just getting started. Neither team led by more than seven points in the final 15 minutes of regulation, and Nowell steadied Kansas State's offense down the stretch, finding Massoud for a 3-pointer that made it 80-75 and hitting a jumper with 1:04 left for the Wildcats' final basket of regulation.
Massoud, who like Nowell honed his game on the playgrounds of Harlem, finished with 15 points for the Wildcats, who shot 55.9% from the field. They become only the second team to shoot better than 50% against the Spartans this season. Cam Carter added 12 points.
Jaden Akins added 14 points for coach Tom Izzo’s Spartans, the final Big Ten team in the tournament. Michigan State outrebounded Kansas State 37-31 and finished 31 of 63 from the field (49.2%).
“We got caught mesmerized on Nowell,” Izzo said. “He’s a special player. We actually did a pretty good job on him. ... It was the assists that really killed us, and the back cuts.”
Both teams were efficient from 3-point range in a tournament that's featured shaky outside shooting, with Michigan State hitting 13 of 25 (52%) and Kansas State connecting on 11 of 24 (45.8%).
Nowell was the difference, putting his name alongside New York City point guard greats like Kenny Smith, Kenny Anderson, Mark Jackson and Bob Cousy, and sending Kansas State to its first Elite Eight since 2018.
Michigan State: The 68-year-old Izzo has led the Spartans to 25 straight NCAA Tournaments but is still seeking his second national title. Since their championship in 2000, the Spartans have made six Final Fours, most recently in 2019.
Kansas State: Nowell has 64 points and 42 assists in three games, including 14 assists in the first round against Montana State. He had nine assists against Kentucky; one more would have given him double-doubles in all three games.
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