Markquis Nowell leads Kansas State past Kentucky in Sweet 16

Markquis Nowell would not let his team lose.

Nowell, the 5-foot-8 point guard from Kansas State, turned in one of the best performances of the NCAA tournament in a heart-stopping 75-69 victory over Kentucky on Sunday in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Whether he was hitting 3-pointers from the midcourt logo or handing out standout assists to his teammates, Nowell had a counter for every hit Kentucky landed. He finished with 27 points, nine assists and three steals to send Kentucky home and bring Kansas State into the Sweet 16 after missing the tournament the previous three seasons.

In a game where his team struggled to make outside jumps, the speedy Nowell managed to penetrate the UK defense and navigate between the trees. Even with Kentucky big man Oscar Tshiebwe dominating in the glass, Nowell’s ability to get in the paint and serve teammates kept Kansas State afloat during an anemic 0-for-12 first-half performance from beyond the arc.

K-State’s defense also helped. Kentucky turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, but came out with renewed focus to open the second half. K-State held a 29-26 halftime lead, but Kentucky opened the second half with a 13-0 run. Kentucky, a team that struggles on the half-court offense, came out on the break and was getting a lot of easy buckets in transition.

K-State’s halftime lead quickly turned into a 39-31 deficit less than four minutes into the second half.

But the state of Kansas would not be deterred. K-State was picked to finish last in the Big 12 entering Jerome Tang’s first season as head coach, but this team has continually exceeded expectations. What was Kentucky’s eight-point lead in the second round of the NCAA Tournament?

K-State responded with an 8-0 run, creating an even game in the final 13 minutes of regulation.

But the Kansas State team made more plays down the stretch. Nowell drilled a logo 3 to tie the game at 54-54 with 6:10 to play. A few minutes later, after Kentucky took a four-point lead, Nowell drilled a triple step back to cut the UK’s lead to 60-59 with 3:33 left.

Later, Nowell hit two free throws to put his team ahead and assisted on a 3-point clutch by Ismael Massoud and Keyontae Johnson that put K-State ahead for good.

Johnson’s step back at the 1:23 mark was the dagger.

As Nowell led, Johnson was one of three others to score in double figures for Kansas State. Johnson had 13 points, while Desi Sills and Nae’qwan Tomlin scored 12 each.

On the Kentucky side, Tshiebwe, the 2022 National Player of the Year, scored 25 points and 18 rebounds in what could be his last game in a college uniform. Cason Wallace had 21 points and nine rebounds and Chris Livingston had 11, but Antonio Reeves had a brutal afternoon.

Reeves, the UK’s second-leading scorer and best outside shooter, finished a dismal 1-for-15 from the field, including a 1-for-10 mark from beyond the arc. The only shot he landed was his last, a 3-pointer with just six seconds left on the clock.

Kentucky was only 4-of-20 on 3-pointers and finished the game with 16 turnovers heads.

Markquis Nowell (1) performed brilliantly to lead Kansas State past Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on March 19, 2023 in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Another Early NCAA Tournament Exit for Kentucky

It’s been a tough three years for John Calipari’s program in Kentucky.

Calipari went to the Elite Eight, the Final Four and then won the national championship in his first three years in charge. In the seven seasons that followed, Calipari coached the Wildcats to a national runner-up, a Final Four, two Elite Eights and a Sweet 16.

The last three seasons, however, have not come close to that high standard. Kentucky missed the tournament entirely by finishing 9-16 in a miserable 2021 campaign, having an embarrassing first-round loss to No. 15 St. Louis. Peter’s last year and fell in the round of 16 this year.

Kentucky was ranked in the top five when the season began, but it never quite lived up to expectations. UK lost three of its first four SEC games and at one point was 16-9 overall with a 7-5 record in SEC play. The Wildcats played better during February, but lost twice to Vanderbilt in early March, including in the SEC Tournament.

The UK clinched a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and held on to No. 11 Providence in the first round despite a poor offensive performance. The Wildcats couldn’t do the same on Sunday against Kansas State.

The Wildcats will have a different look next season, as is customary for Calipari teams. Kentucky’s 2023 recruiting class includes four five-star candidates and is ranked #1 in the nation. Talent will not be lacking for the Wildcats and the pressure will be on Calipari once again to deliver a much better result in the postseason.

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