The most daring play of this year’s NCAA tournament began with an argument.
Kansas State point guard Markquis Nowell and head coach Jerome Tang lulled Michigan State’s defense into briefly lowering its guard while they squabbled over what play to run.
When Michigan State’s A.J. Hoggard turned his head and lost sight of his man, Kansas State’s Keyontae Johnson cut to the basket. Nowell then threw a perfectly weighted lob to Johnson for a tie-breaking reverse dunk with less than a minute remaining in the Wildcats’ 98-93 overtime victory in the East regional semifinals.
THE SMARTEST PLAY OF THE YEAR.
Jerome Tang and Nowell "Call" a play, using it as a decoy to create the lob. INCREDIBLE. pic.twitter.com/wXpuF4ULvi
— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) March 24, 2023
Nowell’s alley-oop was the flashiest of his NCAA tournament single-game record 19 assists on Thursday night in a homecoming game at Madison Square Garden. The Harlem native also scored 20 points and nabbed five steals, propelling third-seeded Kansas State to its first Elite Eight appearance since 2018.
The lingering question in the wake of the alley-oop was whether Nowell and Tang staged their argument to purposefully distract Michigan State. Replays certainly made it appear intentional, but neither Nowell nor Tang would concede that.
Fake arguing with your coach to distract the defense before throwing a half-look pass for a reverse alley-oop to break a 92-92 tie in the final minute of OT in a Sweet 16 game at MSG might be the coolest shit I’ve ever seen pic.twitter.com/10E8CJEvkW
— Mike Rutherford (@CardChronicle) March 24, 2023
Asked by reporters in New York if the discussion between him and Tang was “fake,” Nowell insisted it was “just a basketball play” between him and Johnson.
“We knew how Michigan State plays defense,” Nowell said. “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.”
Tang was not asked directly about the alley-oop during his news conference, but he spoke to SI.com’s Richard Johnson and denied trying to fake out Michigan State.
Spoke to Jerome Tang about this after the game: this wasn't a dummy call or a fake out. Tang was calling one thing and Nowell was calling something else. Nowell noticed Johnson out of the corner of his eye and threw the alley oop because of their connection. https://t.co/OfF12jYdyl
— Richard🇬🇾Johnson (@RJ_Writes) March 24, 2023
Trick play or not, it was a big play. Kansas State led the rest of the way as Michigan State’s Malik Hall split a pair of free throws on the Spartans’ next possession and then Ismael Massoud buried a big jump shot to expand the Wildcats’ advantage to three. When Michigan State failed to get a shot off on its final possession, Kansas State could celebrate.
Before the pivotal alley-oop, Nowell admitted that he turned to someone in the crowd and said, “Watch this.” Nowell said he was talking to former Detroit Pistons all-star Isiah Thomas, who was seated next to ex-Michigan State star Mateen Cleaves and other Spartans greats.
“I think he had a friend over there, and he was rooting for them,” Nowell said. “And I'm like, y'all not going to win today.”