Before Kansas State’s coaches could take his phone away an hour before the game, Keyontae Johnson had already received a few messages. Former teammates and coaches from his time at Florida were sending him good luck texts ahead of the tip-off of the Wildcats season-opener.
For two years, Johnson sat out of games while doctors tried to determine whether he could ever play basketball again after collapsing during a game at Florida State during the 2020-21 season.
“Before the game I was a little emotional, but I knew the game was gonna go so I had to keep going and lay everything our for the team,” Johnson said.
When he got on the floor, Johnson made an early impact. For a minute-and-a-half stretch early in the first half, Johnson took control of the game and keyed a 10-2 run for the Wildcats. First, he set up senior guard Tykei Greene with an assist on a dunk that gave the Wildcats a 12-3 lead, before a possession later knocking down a 3-pointer from the top of the arc. As the ball made its way through the net, Johnson lit up with a smile ear-to-ear.
“The smile came from the crowd,” Johnson, who shot 4-for-8 from the field and 3-for-5 from 3-point range, said. “I mean, the crowd was into it like we were on a big run. Just trying to engage with the crowd, just keep the fanbase good and it just felt really good to get my shots off.”
On the next K-State possession, Johnson hit his second shot of the night, a 3 from the wing nearest to the student section. Johnson punctuated the run with a nifty assist on a fastbreak, setting up Desi Sills for an alley-oop slam.
“I felt like we showed what we are capable of doing,” Johnson said. “I feel like we still have a lot more. That was just a little clip of what we could do. Just gotta stay together and just keep playing together as a team.”
On a night where six different Kansas State players scored in double figures, head coach Jerome Tang was doused in the locker room with water bottles by his players celebrating the coach’s first career victory as a Division 1 head coach. Tang told reporters he wasn’t expecting that celebration and was focused on celebrating Johnson’s return to college basketball after a two-year absence from the sport.
“For Keyontae, I told the guys nobody regardless of whether you played well or didn’t play well, played a lot or didn’t play a lot, nobody should be unhappy tonight because Keyontae Johnson played a basketball game,” Tang said. “A real game. An NCAA basketball game for the first time in two years and a lot of guys we had several guys with tough roads to get here and this is a second opportunity for them so we just have to be really excited about that.”
Before the incident in his final game as a Gator, Johnson was averaging 19.7 points per game.
On Monday night in the final box score, Johnson wound up with 13 points, four assists and two rebounds.
“He was voted Preseason SEC Player of the Year,” Tang said, putting an emphasis on how good Johnson has been before. “I don’t want to put a ceiling on it, I don’t even want to put a floor on it. He’s a really good basketball player and he’s really talented and every moment that he gets to play is a special opportunity. He’s just one of those guys that can go get it. He can get hot and go get it and I think we’ve got a couple guys like that and that’s why we’ve got a chance to be pretty good.”
Johnson contributed 11 of his 13 points in the first half and looked similar to the quality of player he was when he was honored with the preseason selection prior to the 2020-21 season.
Johnson’s comfort on the court came through in a stress-free open to his Wildcat career. Six different K-State players scored in double-figures with senior guard Markquis Nowell contributing 14 points and seven assists with just one turnover. Nowell praised the play of the highly-touted transfer in his welcome back to college basketball.
“It’s great man, just seeing a guy just work over and over and over again to be in the shape that he’s in right now,” Nowell said. “To be able to still have his scoring ability after two years, it’s just great to be alongside him. He’s so versatile and he has a high IQ. It’s great. I love playing with him.”
From a conditioning standpoint, Johnson led the Wildcats in minutes played, seeing the court for 25:54 of action in Kansas State’s 93-59 victory over UTRGV. Playing well is a plus for Johnson, who said he’s keeping in perspective the blessing of getting to play high-level basketball again.
“Just a blessing, really just thanking God every day,” Johnson said. “Without him I wouldn’t be here. I mean he gave me the opportunity of a second chance of life. Every day just before the court, before I get on I’m just gonna keep praying for a healthy season.”