NEW YORK — For two halves and an overtime Thursday night, the former Michigan State and Big Ten basketball greats seated in the front row at Madison Square Garden begged Kansas State guard Markquis Nowell to shoot.
Mateen Cleaves, Steve Smith and others could beg, plead, cajole, pray — but why shoot when you can pass, pass and pass?
In an unforgettable, back-and-forth Sweet 16 clash against one of the premier brands in college basketball, Nowell battled through an apparent lower-body injury to deliver 20 points and 19 assists to help the No. 3 Wildcats knock off the No. 7 Spartans 98-93 in overtime to reach the Elite Eight.
And during a season that has exceeded even the rosiest expectations — the Wildcats had three losing seasons in a row before hiring new coach Jerome Tang, a longtime Baylor assistant — Nowell delivered an epic performance that will linger in program and NCAA history.
His 19 assists set a new NCAA men’s basketball tournament record, breaking the previous mark of 18 set by UNLV guard Mark Wade in the 1987 Final Four against Indiana.
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“Today was a special one, man,” Nowell said.
One assist in particular was special: With just under a minute left in overtime, Nowell gathered the ball near the Wildcats’ basket and looked toward Cleaves and NBA legend Isiah Thomas, mouthing to the former All-America guards, “Watch this.”
At the other end, Nowell tossed an alley-oop to teammate Keyontae Johnson to give KSU the 94-92 lead. If you’re looking for one of the great moments in program history, that was it — and even Cleaves had to respect what Nowell was putting together.
“I love him,” Cleaves said. “I love his game. I love everything about him. I love his leadership, I love his heart, his play-making ability. He makes everyone on the court better. He’s a winner.”
With Nowell putting together one of the top runs by a point guard in recent tournament memory, Kansas State is back in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2018 and nearing the program’s first Final Four appearance in 60 years.
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The Wildcats will face the winner of No. 4 Tennessee and No. 9 Florida Atlantic to decide the East Region and a trip to the Final Four.
Playing back in his hometown, the former Arkansas-Little Rock transfer put on a clinic. The senior had 10 assists in the first half, dishing a series of crisp passes to teammates Johnson (22 points) and Ismael Massoud (15 points) to put the Wildcats ahead 43-38 at the break.
This despite suffering an injury on a short runner with 15:35 remaining. Nowell writhed on the floor under the Spartans’ basket for more than two minutes, grabbing his right ankle, before being helped off the court and toward the Kansas State tunnel.
But he quickly returned with tape on his ankle and reasserted himself after a Michigan State spurt had pushed the Spartans ahead. Not long after stepping back onto the court, Nowell banked in a miraculous 3-point heave as the shot clock expired to even the game at 55-55 with 12:42 left.
“He’s a dog, though, so I knew he’d fight through,” said junior forward David N’Guessan. “He lives for the big moment. He’s just a dog, man. That’s all I can tell you.”
Fittingly, Nowell delivered the assist on the game-clinching baskets, the dunk by Johnson that put KSU ahead for good and the clincher, a jumper from the right side by Massoud that made it 96-93 with 12.5 seconds remaining.
“I just wanted to do it for my teammates,” said Nowell. “I love being out there with these guys, and 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.”
He then picked up a loose ball off the Spartans’ final possession and raced down the court to hit a layup as time expired, putting an exclamation point on a performance that may set a new benchmark for point guard play during March Madness.
“He’s just that guy,” said senior guard Desi Sills. “He’s just doing his thing — heart over height.”