NEW YORK — K-State’s Final Four drought didn’t end on Saturday with Florida Atlantic securing a 79-76 win in the Elite Eight over the Wildcats to secure the Owls first FInal Four in school history.
The Wildcats didn’t score for nearly the first 2:30 of the game until the team’s leading scorer,
, hit a turnaround jumper in the paint to make it a 3-2 game after Florida Atlantic hit a 3-pointer on the opening possession of the game.
But Johnson wasn’t able to assert himself much in the first half. He was called for his second personal foul with just over 12 minutes left on the clock and Jerome Tang opted to keep one of his two All-Americans on the bench for much of the remainder of the game.
Star point guard — and darling of the NCAA Tournament — Markquis Nowell also struggled early in the first half. But in the final 7:00, he started to dominate for K-State. He got it started by hitting a jumper in the paint to make it a 28-24 game. He would then score or assist on K-State’s next 10 points, including five free throws, to help K-State tie the game at 34 with 4:15 left in the first half.
The Wildcats were forced to dig out of a hole, though, because of defensive struggles. The Owls found success near the mid-way point of the half by feeding 7-foot center Vladislav Goldin. The Owl center scored eight points and had eight rebounds in the first half. But he also assisted teammates on a couple of layups.
Despite tying the game at 34, K-State allowed FAU to close the half with an 8-2 advantage, which included a second-chance bucket for Goldin coming out of a Dusty May timeout. Tang, though, called a timeout to help K-State get an open layup for guard Desi Sills, who was on the receiving end of Nowell’s seventh assist of the first half.
K-State scored on their first three possessions of the second half to take a 44-42 lead. Johnson had a pair of buckets and athletic big Nae’Qwan Tomlin scored his seventh point of the game with a layup.
Nowell recorded his ninth assist of the game when he drove and spun through the paint before finding David N’Guessan for a layup to make it a 47-46 game. On the next possession, he stepped into a 3-pointer on the right wing, giving K-State a 49-47 lead while also recording his 18th point of the game.
Johnson was given his fourth foul of the game when he tried to take a charge under the FAU rim. But he wasn’t set — or square — to the ballhandler and was given a blocking foul.
But K-State didn’t let the call hurt them. Nowell stepped up and hit another 3-pointer — putting him over 20 points for the third straight game — Nowell then recorded his 11th assist on back-to-back possessions before forcing a turnover on the defensive side and later deflecting a pass out of bounds. His play sparked a 13-3 run for K-State, which helped them take a 57-50 lead at the under-12 media timeout of the second half.
Tomlin recorded a 3-point play to score his 12th point of the game before he had a nasty block on the defensive side while playing help defense against Goldin who was looking to post up Massoud in the paint.
Goldin put FAU back on top 64-63 when he violently slammed a dunk through the rim with his right hand after Sills fell to the ground. The dunk was the 14th point for Goldin, who entered the game averaging just over 10 points per game this season. Goldin’s dunk sparked a 13-3 for the Owls that helped them take a 67-63 lead with less than four minutes left.
Alijah Martin stepped up to hit a big 3-pointer, his third of the game and it gave the Owls a 70-64 lead with just over three minutes left. He was then fouled by Johnson going for a rebound — committing his fifth foul of the game — before going to the line to make two free throws, giving FAU an eight-point lead.
Nowell stepped up to hit his fifth 3-pointer on 11 attempts to keep it a six-point game with 2:44 left in the second half before David N’Guessan fouled out of the game on the ensuing defensive possession. Florida Atlantic missed the front end of the one-and-one but secured an offensive rebound that led to a Johnell Davis layup to put FAU up five. But Nowell responded with two free throws.
Florida Atlantic’s Nick Boyd split a pair of free throws before Cam Carter hit a transition 3-pointer, giving K-State a last breath by making it a 75-74 game with 22.8 seconds left on the clock.
Michael Forest made four of four free throws after the Carter 3-pointer to help Florida Atlantic clinch a Final Four appearance. K-State didn’t get a shot on the final possession with Ish Massoud getting tied up on the right wing.
The loss ends K-State’s first season under Tang, who led K-State to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the Elite 8 despite being picked to finish in last place in the Big 12 prior to the season and returning just two players from last season’s team.