GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Markquis 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 of the NCAA Tournament.
The win sends the third-seeded Wildcats (25-9) to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2018, and it came thanks to a series of big shots that finally pushed them through in a tight game.
Kansas State missed its first 13 3-pointers and sat at 2 for 17 for the game when the outside shots started falling. There was Nowell burying a step-back 3 against Cason Wallace to bring Kansas State within 60-59, followed a bit later by Ismael Massoud burying one from the right wing at the 2:21 mark that gave Kansas State the lead for good at 64-62.
Keyontae Johnson added one more from that side of the court in front of the Kansas State bench, pushing the lead to 67-62 with 1:23 left — sending 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 while making 7 of 14 shots and 10 of 11 free throws. He also hit three 3s, including the first one over Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe after an 0-for-13 start by Kansas State and another after halftime with his left foot on the “March Madness” logo near midcourt.
Tshiebwe had 25 points and 18 rebounds for sixth-seeded Kentucky (22-12), which shot 55% after halftime and led by eight early in the second half. But the Wildcats never could stretch that lead out, then couldn't make their own big outside shots (4 for 20 for the game) to answer when Kansas State made its move.
Consider it the latest chapter in a run of surprisingly fast success for Kansas State under first-year coach Jerome Tang, who left Baylor after a long stint on Scott Drew’s staff to take over in Manhattan. He inherited a program that hadn’t been to the tournament since 2019, was coming off three straight losing seasons and was picked to finish last in the Big 12.
Yet after a summer of reshaping the roster through the transfer portal, the Wildcats built early confidence and thrived right away — and now, that has them in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
And the bet 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 before resuming his career with Kansas State.
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 to Kansas State before Tang's arrival and stuck around this year. Playing about a 30-minute drive from his first college stop, he hadn’t scored before hitting that huge 3.
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 guard used his 6-4 frame to score against Nowell inside.
But No. 2 scorer Antonio Reeves (14.6 points) managed five points on 1-for-15 shooting, including 1-for-10 from behind the arc with the lone 3 coming with 8 seconds left and Kansas State in control.
When it was over, Kansas State players began to hug each other at midcourt and celebrate, with guard Desi Sills — another transfer, fittingly — talking animatedly to nearly cameras as he walked around the court in victory.
Later, after most of the team had left the court, Johnson was still hanging around behind the bench to give high-fives and sign autographs for fans. And teammate Nae'Qwan Tomlin squeezed in one more high-five of his own before running toward the locker room while pointing triumphantly to another pocket of KSU fans.
Kentucky: The past year has been one of wild emotional swings, starting with last March’s devastating first-round exit at the hands of 15-seed Saint Peter’s. That hung over the team while a No. 4 preseason ranking evaporated with a 10-6 start. Kentucky beat Providence in the first round to get past that emotional hurdle with coach John Calipari pushing his team to play loose and free. Still, it wasn't enough to get Kentucky to the tournament's second weekend for the first time since an Elite Eight run in 2019.
Kansas State: Friday's first-round win against Montana State came in the program's first tournament appearance since 2019. Nowell was huge in that one with 17 points and 14 assists. In this one, Kansas State outscored Kentucky 19-9 down the stretch, with Nowell scoring 11 and going 8-for-8 at the line in a show of unflappable resolve.
Kansas State will play Thursday in New York’s Madison Square Garden.