NEW YORK — History may look back at the performance of Kansas State guard Markquis Nowell as one of the great moments in Madison Square Garden lore. The Harlem native had an NCAA Tournament record 19 assists and cemented the Wildcats’ Sweet 16 win over the Michigan State Spartans by stripping fellow New Yorker Tyson Walker of the ball and then scoring on buzzing-beating driving layup in overtime.
The New York basketball gods wouldn’t have drawn it up any other way as the Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament.
On the biggest stage of his college basketball career and a mere 4.5 miles from where he grew up, Nowell was “Mr. New York City,” as his social media handles suggest. At one point late in the game, the TBS Cameras caught Nowell playing to the crowd and yelling “this is my city.”
Before an embarrassed Nowell could even answer a reporter’s question about it, fellow New Yorker and teammate Ismael Massoud interjected: “Yeah it is.”
It certainly felt that way as Nowell, who finished with 20 points to go along with his record-setting number of assists. All of which came after Nowell injured his ankle less than five minutes into the second half and briefly exited the game.
In almost a Willis Reed-esque moment, Nowell returned to the game a little more than two minutes later, Checking in and then immediately knocking down an off-balance three and then playing through the rest of the night with a grimace while playing on one leg.
“I just wanted to be tough as nails. I mean I’m from New York City,” Nowell said with a bit of swagger. “You play through injuries all the time and I wasn’t going to let a rolled ankle stop me from playing in his game, and being with my teammates. I love these guys and I’d put it all on the line like I did today to see us have success.”
It certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the guys around him.
“It means a lot. It meant like he’s here with us,” fellow New Yorker and K-State guard Nae’Qwan Tomlin said. “He’s here to stay you know, even though he’s hurting, he’s still gonna pull through and fight with us.”
Forward Keyontae Johnson added: “When he came back, I felt like it just — everybody seen how he was trying to fight through his injury, and we just wanted to fight back for him.”
The Madison Square Garden moment was just the latest noteworthy event for Nowell, who has been having a breakout year as the Wildcats march through the NCAA tournament continued. Nowell moved to third all-time in Kansas State history with 421 career assists.
It was the second consecutive NCAA Tournament game that Nowell recorded 20 or more points and adds to a year where he’s averaged 17.1 points and has had a career-best 7.8 assists.
“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. 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,” Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang said about Nowell’s big assist night.
Still, it was hard to not be impressed by his court vision on several occasions on Thursday night. That included the ally-oop dunk he set up for Keyontae Johnson with 56.2 seconds left in overtime to break a 92-92 tie.
The play came about as Nowell yelled toward his coach on the sideline and then saw Johnson out of the corner of his eye for the go-ahead basket.
Now Nowell and the Wildcats will get another game inside the hallowed halls of MSG and one more chance to etch his name into Garden lore. Thursday was the first chance to do so and he did it with New York basketball royalty in the stands with Isaiah Thomas and Carmelo Anthon on hand.
The K-state guard looked over to Thomas and said “watch this” before the lob and Anthony, who Nowell described as a “big brother” saluted him after the game. All of that has been motivating Nowell to keep growing his game.
“Just gives you that boost and that confidence to keep going,” Nowell said. “Because I don’t ever want this to stop. I want to continue to keep getting better. I never want to be satisfied. And that’s just an eye-opener for me to keep doing what I’m doing.”