Sweet! Three takeaways from Kansas State’s victory over Kentucky in NCAA Tournament

Kansas State is heading to the Sweet 16.

The Wildcats extended their stay in the NCAA Tournament with a thrilling 75-69 victory over No. 6 seed Kentucky in the Round of 32 on Sunday at Greensboro Coliseum.

The No. 3 seed Wildcats defeated Kentucky with toughness and grit in the first half and then clutch shooting in the final minutes. Markquis Nowell led all scorers with 27 points on top of nine assists. Keyontae Johnson added 13 points. Desi Sills and Nae’Qwan Tomlin both scored 12 points.

It was a balanced effort that included big-time shots from big-time players in front of a mostly blue-clad crowd that was cheering on Kentucky. K-State found a way to defeat a traditional power in March Madness and proved it was the superior team.

“Those old dudes that played for Kentucky back in the day aren’t coming back,” K-State coach Jerome Tang said. “Tradition does not help you if you don’t get down on the floor and play with dudes. We had more dudes than they did today. That’s what that was.”

K-State players and coaches understandably celebrated with lots of energy after final buzzer sounded. This was the type of victory that made a good season truly special.

It will try to continue its tournament run on Thursday when it plays No. 7 seed Michigan State at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Until then, here are some thoughts on Sunday’s action:

K-State saved its best for last

The purple-clad Wildcats didn’t shoot the ball particularly well in this game ... until things mattered most.

K-State heated up from the outside with one clutch three-pointer after the next in crunch time on Sunday.

Markquis Nowell made three shots from beyond the arc in the second half and showed a lot of emotion after each of them by turning to the Kentucky bench and celebrating with a gesture from his right arm. But his teammates came through with timely swishes as well. Ismael Massoud came off the bench to drain an unlikely three in the final minutes and Keyontae Johnson hit a step-back three to give K-State a 67-62 lead.

All of them got big reactions from the crowd.

Massoud’s three-pointer was the deepest and perhaps most improbable, considering it was his only attempt of the game. But he once again showed a propensity for hitting a big shot with the game on the line.

“I’m too far from the line sometimes and I probably was on that shot,” Massoud said. “I don’t know how far I was, but I knew I was open so I just let it go.”

Johnson was only 5 of 14 on the day, but also came through when it mattered most.

“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time moments,” Tang said. “I knew he was going to hit that shot.”

This game was back-and-forth most of the way with neither team truly able to find separation. But that changed when K-State players started making clutch shots.

Kentucky didn’t have an answer for that.

Markquis Nowell shined on college basketball’s biggest stage

Most of the attention coming into this game was on Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe, which made sense because of how well he played in the opening round against Providence.

He grabbed 25 rebounds, for crying out loud.

But Nowell stole the spotlight away from him in the Round of 32 by delivering a fantastic game that featured 27 points and nine assists. His ability to make shots and create scoring opportunities for others was the difference in this game.

“I was just in attack mode the second half,” Nowell said. “I saw how they were playing me. They were playing me for the pass, because I dropped a lot of dimes in the first half. I tried to look for my own shot a little bit more and be more aggressive, and I wanted to go to New York.”

Mission accomplished.

Now, maybe the focus will be on Nowell heading into the Sweet 16.

His stellar performance was made even more impressive by the fact that Tshiebwe produced a great stat line of his own. The Kentucky forward had 25 points and 18 rebounds. He wasn’t even the MVP of the game.

If college basketball fans didn’t know about Nowell before this weekend, they do now.

Three-pointers were overrated in the first half

K-State didn’t make a single shot from the three-point line in the first half of this game, going 0 for 12 from beyond the arc, but that didn’t stop the Wildcats from taking an early lead over Kentucky.

Few would have expected that.

Yet Jerome Tang’s team did everything else right and overcame a poor shooting effort to lead 29-26 at halftime. K-State only turned the ball over five times and forced Kentucky into 11 giveaways. The Cats went 10 of 13 on layups. They went two of two on dunks. That more than made up for a goose egg from the three-point line.

K-State had to wait until the 14:32 mark of the second half to get its first three to fall, from Markquis Nowell.

Not even an early double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds from Tshiebwe was enough for Kentucky to possess the lead. K-State played stellar defense and limited Kentucky to a pair of three-pointers.

Antonio Reeves went 1 of 10 for the game.

The first half was punctuated by three tremendous passes from Nowell in the final minutes, including a last-second lob dunk to Nae’Qwan Tomlin. That helped set the stage for his late-game heroics as a shooter.

Had K-State been making shots from the get-go, it could have won this game by double digits.

Still, they made enough in the end to survive and advance.

“We proved we were the better team,” K-State guard Cam Carter said. “We are the best team in the country, and we’re going to keep proving that.”