NEW YORK — What magic we witnessed in midtown Manhattan on Thursday night. An NCAA Tournament game for the ages and a record-setting individual performance that will go down in the treasured annals of the World’s Most Famous Arena.
There’s Willis Reed’s legendary hobble in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. Reggie Miller’s 25-point fourth quarter/one-man comeback against the Knicks in ’94.
Jordan’s double-nickel. Kobe’s 61. Carmelo’s 62. Bernard King’s 60.
And on Thursday: Nowell’s 19. Assists, that is. Until March 23, 2023, nobody had dropped so many dimes in one tournament game. The first: Nowell.
Kansas State‘s Markquis Nowell, a 5-foot-8 (maybe) whirling dervish from Harlem playing the first game of his life — and at the same time, suddenly the best game of his life — at Madison Square Garden and wowing on a Sweet 16 stage, no less. Nineteen assists, every one mandatory to pull his No. 3 seed Wildcats past No. 7 seed Michigan State in a 98-93 overtime win, propelling Kansas State into the Elite Eight.
K-State’s win in the East Regional semifinals produced both the first overtime affair and the best game so far in this outrageously fun 2023 NCAA Tournament.
The Garden and March Madness. Hard to get better than this.
At the center of it all: Nowell. The smallest player on the floor became the biggest star of the night — and maybe the brightest in this blessed tournament. Nowell, who grew up a few dozen blocks north of Madison Square Garden, had 20 points and five steals to go with those 19 assists.
There hasn’t been a player with a stat line like that in college basketball in 14 years.
“It’s surreal, I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” Nowell said once he finally got to the dais.
Moments later, Nowell would be at his locker in the New York Knicks’ spacious locker room, enveloped by dozens of reporters. This was his night in his city, a performance that made him a lifelong Kansas State legend and an overnight New York basketball folk tale.
The Wildcats’ diminutive dime-disher was dazzling in his distributions, daring in his shot selection and trash-talking the Spartans all night.
“I determine how the game is going to go,” Nowell said on Wednesday when asked how he expected Tom Izzo and Michigan State to scheme against him. “You have all types of Hall of Fame coaches that scouted me and tried to stop me, so I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.”
How’s that for some trademark New York confidence?
“Today was a special one,” Nowell said after Thursday night’s win. “I can’t even explain how I’m feeling right now. I just know that I’m blessed and I’m grateful.”
The defining play of this instant-classic performance came in overtime with less than 70 seconds remaining. Nowell — who was playing on a bad right ankle after twisting it early in the second half — took the ball and, as he’d been doing much of the night, started a dialogue with Michigan State fans made his way up the court.
“Watch this,” Nowell said.
Turns out he was talking to Isaiah Thomas, the former NBAer who was there to cheer on Sparty with the likes of program legends Mateen Cleaves and Steve Smith.
“And I’m like, ‘Y’all not going to win today,'” Nowell said.
What ensued was only the signature play of Nowell’s career and a guaranteed highlight in this year’s version of “One Shining Moment.” Wildcats coach Jerome Tang was signaling for a play. Nowell wanted nothing of it. He looked at Tang and fooled everyone except the one guy who knew exactly what was about to happen.
“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.”
Johnson made a hard cut from the corner to the basket. Nowell no-looked an alley-oop from 35 feet out, a perfect pass to give K-State a two-point lead with a minute remaining.
The audacity! You can see Nowell gesturing to MSU fans at the start of this video.
Take a look again. This is brilliant.
“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.”
Tang and Nowell said afterward it was a healthy disagreement between player and coach. It looks like a beautifully acted ruse. Either way, it brought the house down.
And to think, Nowell was doing it all on a bad wheel. For a brief flash, it looked like his night would be done four and a half minutes into the second half. He fell awkwardly on his right ankle after trying to put up a floater on the low block. At the time, K-State led 50-46. Nowell was carried off the floor.
MSU went on a 9-2 run before he came back. He got taped up, started loosening the ankle and got out there in fewer than three minutes of game time. He never left the floor the rest of the game. In fact, the injury was the only time Nowell subbed out of the entire game. He played 43 of the tilt’s 45 minutes.
“I wasn’t going to let a little injury like this that happens on the basketball court all the time to stop me from playing in the Sweet 16 and advancing to the Elite Eight,” Nowell said.
If Nowell’s alley-oop was the defining play of the game, his desperation bank-in 3-pointer the play after he came back into the game was the most absurd microcosm of his unforgettable night. His scramble-triple tied the game at 55 after he stole the ball from Malik Hall. After the banker fell true, he practically hopped back on one leg as he got back on defense.
It was the play that kept the game on a wobble throughout the second half — the burst Kansas State needed to stop Michigan State’s best run of the night.
“His IQ, his feel for the game, he brings everybody confidence,” Johnson said, “and when he came back, I felt like it just — everybody (saw) how he was trying to fight through his injury, and we just wanted to fight back for him.”
Nowell was the coolest dude in the building. As Thursday’s thriller wound its way to overtime, he hit a long 2-pointer to give Kansas State an 82-78 with 1:03 remaining in regulation, flashing a knowing smirk and settle-down-now motion to MSU fans as he backpedaled after burying his latest bit of outrageousness.
A tiny guy with the biggest heart and an endless supply of moxie. The exact kind of player the country loves to fall in love with in March. Sure, he tossed up some no-no-nos — 3-point attempts that missed badly — but it was all part of the show. Michigan State put up an incredible fight. Another local, Tyson Walker, along with A.J. Hoggard nearly made this a Michigan State story.
“It was like a Rocky fight tonight,” Nowell said. “We (were) going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And some guys made some big-time plays, so I want to give credit to Tom Izzo and Michigan State.”
But when the Spartans had open looks to shoot a 3-pointer and get this beauty to a second OT — Joey Hauser passed out of his chance — a turnover wound up in the hands of you-know-who. A steal and a layup that kissed off the glass and fell through the net as the horn blared and the backboard flashed red, bringing Kansas State to its 14th Elite Eight in program history.
“This one was special, in front of my hometown, in front of the city that loves me,” Nowell said.
Injury, huge plays, trash talk, big shots, the postseason. A memorable night at Madison Square Garden.
“I knew he wasn’t staying off,” Tang said. “That dude didn’t come here to be injured in his last college game.”
They didn’t come to only win one more, either. As Nowell, Massoud and Johnson celebrated on their way to the postgame press conference, Massoud pointed out to Nowell he was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter “in the WORLD.”
“Three more wins,” Johnson told Nowell in the back hallways of MSG. “I ain’t ever been to Houston.”
In that moment, Nowell couldn’t stop smiling. He was practically hidden among the big bodies around him. Here he was, the star of the night in this basketball-loving city, tucked behind his buddies. He soon emerged once again for his moment.
The player from the Little Apple came back home to the Big One and continued one of the best stories of this tournament — and extended one of college basketball’s most surprising stories of the season.