A Thriller and a Stunner Advance Kansas State, Florida Atlantic to Elite Eight

photo: Jon Wagner (New York Sports Day)

NEW YORK, N.Y. — It occurred in very different ways, but the Kansas State Wildcats and Florida Atlantic Owls both refused to lose down the stretches of their respective NCAA tournament East Regional semifinal games at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night — before a sold-out crowd of 19,624 — to set up an intriguing matchup between two of the more improbable teams to be playing on Saturday night for a trip to the Final Four in Houston.


Extra Sweet! Kansas State Holds Off Michigan State in Overtime

From the Big Apple, by way of the Little Apple, from Manhattan (Kansas) to Manhattan (New York City), the Kansas State Wildcats are accomplishing the unthinkable and are now one more win from reaching the Final Four from where else? The World’s Most Famous Arena in the heart of Manhattan.

There was a distinct New York flavor at Madison Square Garden, especially between opposing point guards, as the third-seeded Kansas State Wildcats met the seventh-seeded Michigan State Spartans in what may be remembered by many as one of the great NCAA tournament classics of all time — at least for a Sweet Sixteen round, anyway.

Establishing a new NCAA tournament record with 19 assists — one more than Michigan State had (while committing only two turnovers) — senior, pint-sized point guard Markquis Nowell (who also scored 20 points and had a game-best five steals), all five feet, eight inches and 160 pounds of him, was once again spectacular as Kansas State finally outlasted point guard Tyson Walker and the Michigan State Spartans, 98-93, in overtime, in an East Regional semifinal battle that featured 14 ties and 16 lead changes.

“This is probably my career-high (including high school) in assists ever,” Nowell said. “I had a couple games with 14 (in college), a couple games with 17 back in high school. But this one was special, in front of my hometown, in front of the city that loves me. I can’t even put into words how blessed and grateful I am.”

Nowell, from Harlem, N.Y., and Walker, from Westbury, N.Y. (on Long Island) often battled each other in their New York City high school days.

Although Walker contributed well with 16 points and five assists, he was no match for Nowell, who has totaled an unthinkable 42 assists while committing 11 turnovers, to go along with 64 points, over the Wildcats’ first three games of this year’s NCAA tournament.

And while Walker (who starred at Northeastern before arriving at Michigan State) had significant help from junior guard A.J. Hoggard (game-high 25 points, six assists) senior forward Joey Hauser (18 points), sophomore guard Jaden Adkins (14 points), and senior reserve forward Malik Hall (13 points), Nowell (who came to Kansas State after playing for Little Rock) was aided by an impressive performance from senior forward Keyontae Johnson (team-best 22 points, six rebounds), and three other teammates scoring 11 or 12 points each. But it was some extra help from fellow Harlemite, junior forward Ismael Massoud (15 points), whose timely 3-pointers helped to stave off the Spartans (21-13) before the Wildcats (26-9) won the only overtime game of the 2023 NCAA tournament thus far.

After Kansas State (off of wins over 14th-seeded Montana State and a hard-fought victory over sixth-seeded Kentucky) opened with the first five points before Michigan State (which beat 10th-seeded USC before upsetting second Marquette) later took a 22-18 lead with 7:28 left in the opening half.

A 16-6 run late in the half put the Wildcats up by six points before Kansas State settled for a 43-38 halftime lead.

The Spartans flipped the script in the second half, outscoring the Wildcats by a nearly identical 44-39 margin to send the game to extra time.

A 12-3 run erased a nine-point Kansas State and tied the game at 50 apiece with 14:34 left in regulation. Things remained very close over the next nearly seven minutes as Michigan State moved ahead, 70-67, on a 3-pointer by Hauser. But Kansas State stormed back with the next 10 points to take a 77-70 lead with 4:45 to go in regulation.

Trailing 80-75 after a Massoud 3-pointer with 3:07 to go in the half, an Aikins 3-pointer got the Spartans within two points.

Nowell hit a clutch left-wing jumper to double that lead with 1:04 left, but a second-chance layup from Hall and a missed 3 from Nowell set Walker up to tie the game on a tough layup through traffic with about five seconds left in regulation. Nowell had a chance to win the game but was stopped at the rim on a driving layup.

Michigan State appeared to be in good shape after Walker broke an 84-84 tie on a 3-pointer early in overtime, and Hoggard broke a 90-90 tie on a layup with 1:47 left, but it was 8-1, Kansas State from there.

A stunning reverse dunk from Johnson (who transferred from Florida to the Wildcats after collapsing in a game due to heart trouble more than two years ago) fittingly off of a nice lob pass from Nowell — whose personal mantra is “heart over height” — put Kansas State ahead to stay, 94-92, with 56.2 seconds to go.

“It was just a basketball play between me and Keyontae,” Nowell described. “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.”

Rookie head coach Jerome Tang later noted about Nowell, “What really helps is that all ten eyes on the defense have to pay attention to him, and that’s what allows everybody else to get open.”

A Norfolk, VA native, Johnson said he has been doubly motivated by helping his New York teammates have a good homecoming this week as well as the chance to travel to this year’s Final Four city, where Johnson has yet to visit.

“I wanted to get the win with my guys, all my teammates (two others from New York City, besides Nowell and Massoud, who didn’t play), from New York. So that was a big part of my goal today, and just keep it going. I’ve never been to Houston, so my motto is, ‘Try to get to Houston,’ and just keep this going, really.”

With a chance to forge a 15th tie, Hall missed the second of a pair of free throws before Massoud made a 3-pointer to make it 96-93. The Spartans were looking for a 3-pointer to force a second overtime session but had trouble getting a shot off against the Wildcats’ stifling defense, and they never did as Walker turned the ball over, leading to a meaningless layup at the other end by Nowell as time expired.

“Give credit to Michigan State,” Nowell said. “They played a tremendous game on the offensive end and defensive ends. It was like a Rocky fight tonight. We was going back and forth, back and forth.”

Tang said after the win, “The joy with which they play and the freedom that they’re allowed to be out there and play [with], I’m just really, really thankful I get to yell at them in practice one more day. We just get to spend another day and dap each other up, all little things that really matter. I’m just so thankful for that… it’s a huge accomplishment. This thing is hard. It’s hard to do.”

Head coach Tom Izzo, who was coaching in his 15th Sweet Sixteen (and who has coached the Spartans in eight Final Fours while winning one national championship) during his 28 seasons as a head coach (all at Michigan State), said, “I give a lot of credit to Kansas State. They made some big plays down the stretch. They made some big plays early.”

It’s especially a hard thing to do when being picked last in the preseason (like Kansas State was this year) while playing in the nation’s best conference (the Wildcats’ league, the Big 12).

But after the way Kansas State has already defied those odds by reaching the Elite Eight, who’s to say when the Wildcats’ special run may end? Perhaps as Johnson is hoping for, that may be in Houston, and maybe even with a national title there. 


Sweet Cinderella? FAU Claims it Belongs After Rallying Past Tennessee

Don’t tell the upstart Florida Atlantic Owls that they’re merely the latest in a long line of unexpected March Madness, mid-major Cinderellas. According to that surprise entry in the Elite Eight, they absolutely belong there.

Who could argue now after ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic (34-3) moved ahead of Houston’s 33-3 mark for the nation’s best record this season with a game-turning 18-2 surge (as part of a larger 25-8 second-half run) to stun the fourth-seeded Tennessee Volunteers, 62-55, before a raucous crowd that turned Madison Square Garden into Boca Raton North?

“I don’t feel like we’re a Cinderella, said freshman guard Nick Boyd, who had 12 points and a game-high eight rebounds. “We proved that tonight. We just played good basketball. We played as a unit, we played together, and we played physical. I know we’re undersized, we’re small. You look at me (at six-foot-three inches and 175 pounds), I’m not the strongest guy. Go down to Mike, he’s not the tallest guy, but we play hard and we play with heart.”

Mike is senior guard Michael Forrest (11 points), who added, “We all have high standards for ourselves, so we try to keep those standards throughout every workout, every practice. Anytime we step onto the court or in film, everyone is always locked in and giving their best effort.

“We’ve got a group of guys that no matter what night it is, somebody is going to step up and make a big play. Everybody stays together through the ups and downs, so that’s really what separates us.”

After slogging its way through an ugly first half in which the Owls shot just 37.5 percent (9-for-24) and in which Tennessee (25-11) was even worse at only 31.3 percent (10-for-32), and after falling behind by as many as nine points on three different occasions in the frame, FAU ended the half on a modest 6-2 run to draw within 27-22 at halftime.

The Volunteers led 33-26 early in the second half before the resourceful Owls dug deep and rallied for a third straight time in the second half of this year’s NCAA tournament. FAU trailed by 10 in the first half before beating ninth-seeded Memphis in the first round, by a point, in the final seconds. The Owls — which had never won an NCAA tournament game before their current run — then overcame a small second-half deficit against pesky, 16-seeded Farleigh Dickinson (which shocked top-seeded Purdue a round earlier) to close strong and win that second-round game by eight points.

Fifth-year head coach Dusty May noted, “After the first seven minutes or so, we felt like we really settled in and played good basketball. Despite the score at the half, we felt like we were playing our type of game. We got back to moving the ball. We were playing with great physicality. We did an unbelievable job on the glass in the first half (22-17, FAU in the half) despite our [lack of] size [relative to] Tennessee’s. It’s a testament to how hard these guys play and their drive and determination.”

Boyd (from Garnerville, N.Y., about 50 miles north of MSG, where he was playing for the first time) added, “The locker room was kind of laid back. We felt like we played terrible the first half, and we were still down five points. We referred back to the Memphis game where we were down four at halftime, and we just stuck with it and found a way to win.”

FAU, which had a 20-game regular season winning streak and was ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 earlier this season, clamped down defensively and roared back over a 10-minute span to grab a commanding 51-41 lead with 6:47 remaining after closing a larger surge with an 18-2 run. Tennessee could get no closer than 55-50 with 3:37 left, especially after the Owls scored the next four points — on a Boyd fast-break layup and a pair of free throws from sophomore guard Johnell Davis (who led all scorers with 15 points, going 9-for-10 from the foul line despite missing six of nine shots from the floor) — over the next two minutes, to lead by nine.

Sophomore guard Alijah Martin never doubted that as before in the tournament, another FAU run was coming.

“We always had it in us,” he said. “We just got to stay the course, stay positive, and stay together through the game. We’re going to make that run every time.”

The Owls, which nearly doubled their first-half scoring output with 40 second-half points, shot 46.2 percent (12-for-26) after intermission while the Volunteers didn’t improve much in the second half, going 35.5% (11-for-31) from the floor. Tennessee, which ranked third nationally in both points allowed and opponents’ field goal percentage, lost for the first time in 23 games this season when allowing fewer than 63 points.

“Congratulations to Florida Atlantic,” head coach Rick Barnes said. “Good basketball team, played well. They made shots at the right times. They came up with some really big offensive rebounds at a time when we really needed to finish our defensive possession. They played hard and then deserve to move on.”

As for Tennessee — which barely had only two scorers in double figures, with senior guard Josiah-Jordan James and sophomore forward Jonas Aidoo each scoring 10 points — the Volunteers dropped to just 1-8 in the Sweet Sixteen, last reaching the Elite Eight in 2010.

While much of the country may still not heavily regard FAU as a legitimate contender, out of Conference USA (the nation’s 13th-rated league compared to, for instance, Tennessee’s Southeastern Conference, the country’s third-best conference), the Owls already feel they deserve to be on the big stage with whomever they may share it.

“Our guys, our staff, players, everyone in our program certainly feels like we belong here and a lot goes into that,” Said May, who notched his 100th career coaching victory. “Number one, how long they’ve been able to sustain their effort, their energy, especially when you’re the hunted like they’ve been all year. People are starting to take notice how good our league was this year, so we’re battle tested.

“But our guys, I think they really believe in what we do, and when it’s not working, they don’t panic. They just stay the course and trust over the course of 40 minutes, 60, 70 possessions, typically — 50 possessions in tonight’s game — that we’re going to figure it out. In the first half, we didn’t have one spurt, and we’re known for our spurtability –credit (CBS Sports college basketball analyst) Clark Kellogg [who] that made that term popular. And in the second half, we made a couple spurts. Yeah, our guys definitely feel like they belong on this stage.”

Being in the Elite, “Sounds just right,” said Boyd. “We’re where we’re supposed to be. We’re going to keep moving, keep working. We’re going to stay humble and hungry. I can’t count us out no more. We’re here to stay and we’re going to keep fighting no matter who we line up against, who we play. I’ve got a group of brothers that play together and I feel like there’s nobody in the country that loves each other like we do and works like we do, so we’re going to keep making statements.”

Martin added, “We don’t feel like we’re Cinderella. We feel like we’re supposed to be here, doing exactly what we’re supposed to do. Credit to our coaches getting us ready, players staying in the gym, getting ready, staying sharp, and just a lot of guys stepping up.”

As the Owls set their sights on even loftier goals, just one step from the Final Four, FAU’s first Elite Eight appearance is a big deal for its program but not something to be distracted with while work is yet to be done.

“It’s awesome for our university, our athletic department, and our community, and we are extremely proud to represent them,” May said. “Our guys have done it with professionalism all year, so it’s awesome for everyone, especially as we’ve put [in] a lot of time. These guys have put [in] a lot of work [and] elbow grease into building a program. And, so for it to be to this point, it’s very rewarding, but we’ll focus on all that later after the season.”

Already thinking about the next step in FAU’s magical journey, May believes his Owls won’t simply hand Kansas State a victory should his team lose.

“I’ve watched them a lot this year just because I enjoy watching them play,” May said. “As a coach, that’s probably the greatest compliment you can give someone, [that] you enjoy watching their team play. I’ve known Keyontae since he was young in high school, and I’m friends with a couple of the guys on their staff, and Coach Tang. So, so much respect for them. We know how hard it’s going to be, but our guys aren’t going to back down. If we lose on Saturday it’s going to be because Kansas State beat us, [not because we beat ourselves].”

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons). Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship). He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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