No. 3 seed Kansas State rallied from an eight-point deficit in the second half to sink No. 6 seed Kentucky 75-69 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday behind some clutch 3-point shooting and the fearless play of point guard Markquis Nowell. K-State missed its first 13 attempts from beyond the arc but made five of its next eight to surge into the Sweet 16.
Nowell made three of those 3-pointers while leading Kansas State with 27 points. K-State will play either No. 2 seed Marquette or No. 7 seed Michigan State in the East Regional semifinals next week in New York as the program's remarkable turnaround under first-year coach Jerome Tang continues. The Wildcats were picked to finish last in the Big 12 this season.
The loss ends Kentucky's season in disappointment for Kentucky after UK rallied from a 1-3 start in SEC play to secure a respectable seeding in the Big Dance. The program hasn't appeared in a Sweet 16 since 2019. Antonio Reeves and Jacob Toppin, who entered as Kentucky's No. 2 and No. 3 scorers, combined for just seven points on 2-of-22 shooting in the loss.
LIMITLESS RANGE @KStateMBB pic.twitter.com/xd3yTsJapn— CBS Sports College Basketball 🏀 (@CBSSportsCBB) March 19, 2023
Cason Wallace and Oscar Tshiebwe combined for 46 points to give UK a chance. But the ineffectiveness of Reeves and Toppin was difficult to overcome after the duo combined for 40 points in UK's 61-53 win over Providence in the first round. Though Kentucky won the battle of second-chance points 17-7 behind 18 rebounds from Tshiebwe, a 16-8 turnover deficit hampered UK's offense.
Nowell's big day
Over three seasons before Tang's arrival, Kansas State amassed a grim 34-58 record as the Wildcats regressed from being a regular NCAA Tournament participant under Bruce Weber into a doormat in the Big 12. While Tang's arrival from his longtime post as an assistant under Scott Drew at Baylor inspired confidence that better things were ahead for the program, it was hard to see turnaround of this magnitude coming so soon.
Essential to the K-State revitalization has been Nowell, who stuck around through the transition from Weber to Tang and developed into an All-Big 12 performer this season. The 5-foot-8 New York City native upped his point production from 12.4 to 16.8 while leading the league in assists and steals this season.
The gritty Nowell played with reckless abandon in the best way on Sunday, showing no fear in the key moments when his team needed a basket the most. Two of his 3-pointers in the second half tied the game and another one brought Kansas State within a point at the 3:33 mark. Then, in the final minute, he made six straight free throws to cement the outcome.
STEPBACK SPLASH CITY @KStateMBB pic.twitter.com/0HP3ckXyqG— CBS Sports College Basketball 🏀 (@CBSSportsCBB) March 19, 2023
Another early exit
Since Kentucky coach John Calipari signed a "lifetime contract" in 2019, the Wildcats have failed to make it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky's 2020 team was destined for a good seeding in the Big Dance before it was canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Wildcats missed the event in 2021 amid a historically bad 9-16 season. Kentucky returned to the field last year as a No. 2 seed but was bounced by No. 15 seed Saint Peter's in the first round.
Including SEC Tournament games, Kentucky is just 2-5 in the postseason since Calipari's lifetime deal, which reportedly came amid UCLA's pursuit of Calipari. At the time, he was coming off a 30-7 season that ended in the Elite Eight. It marked the sixth straight season in which UK played beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but by the time the 2024 NCAA Tournament rolls around, it will have been five calendar years since one of the nation's most-storied programs has made a Sweet 16.
Answering the bell
Kentucky used a 13-0 run to take a 39-31 lead less than four minutes into the second half, but it wasn't Nowell or fellow star Keyontae Johnson who initially answered for the Wildcats. Instead, it was X-factor guard Desi Sills who rattled off five quick points for K-State.
Sills didn't start his first game of the season until Feb. 18, but Kansas State is now 6-1 with him in the starting lineup. The 6-1 guard finished with 12 points, four rebounds and a steal without committing a turnover. K-State's attack revolves around Nowell and Johnson, but Sills' excellence in a complementary role has been key for the team late this season, and he was an overlooked part of the team's push into the Sweet 16 on Sunday.