GREENSBORO, NC — In arguably the best game of the NCAA Tournament so far, Kansas State repeatedly hit tough shots in the second half to beat No. 6 Kentucky ___-____.
The two teams had a sloppy start in the first couple of minutes with the basketball acting as a hot potato more than the object designed to go through the rim. Neither team scored in the first minute, but a Jacob Toppin dunk with 17:16 left in the first half put Kentucky ahead 4-3, it was Toppin’s only made shot in the first half despite taking five shots.
After Oscar Tshiebwe converted on a second-chance bucket over David N’Guessan, Kentucky took a 6-3 lead with 16:40 left in the first half. Tshiebwe — the nation’s leading rebounder (13.5 RPG) — had 11 boards in the first half, including five on the offensive glass. But Kentucky only had five second-chance points in the first 20 minutes.
Kentucky was also brutal in the first half from the perimeter going just 2-for-11 from deep, including an abysmal 0-for-5 from Antonio Reeves. But Kansas State was, arguably, worse from deep missing all 12 attempts from trey with Cam Carter and Nae’Qwan Tomlin both missing a couple of wide-open looks from deep.
Carter, who is shooting below 37.5 percent from the field this season, took four of Kansas State’s first six shots from the field, only converting on a pair of layups to score four first-half points.
But it was the struggles of Johnson that led to Kansas State trailing for most of the first 17 minutes of the half. The third-team AP All-American went just 2-for-7 from the field, including three missed triples and a pair of missed layups. But Johnson slammed home a dunk after one of Kentucky’s 11 first half turnovers to make it a 22-21 game. Then, Kentucky turned it over on the next possession before fouling Johnson on another take to the rim. Johnson made both free throws to give Kansas State a 23-22 lead.
Contributing to Kansas State taking the lead was Kentucky not scoring for more than 3:00 minutes. Within the stretch, Kentucky missed five straight shots and went just 2-for-10 overall, which included three turnovers.
Kansas State guard Markquis Nowell, an All-American, only had four points in the first half. But he also had five assists. Nowell was brilliant in the final minutes, though. He had a euro step layup with 45 seconds left to give Kansas State a 27-26 lead. On the next possession, he penetrated the defense before throwing an alley-oop lob pass to Tomlin who slammed it home for a dunk, giving Kansas State a 29-26 halftime lead.
Kentucky jumped out to an early 9-0 run in the first half to take a 35-31 lead after a layup by Tshiebwe. The 9-0 run over just 1:55 of game time was aided by five points off of K-State’s two turnovers, including an intercepted pass by Tshiebwe. Freshman guard Cason Wallace, who was forced to the bench with two fouls for a portion of the first half, scored seven points for Kentucky in the first three minutes, including a three-point play after being fouled by Carter.
Two layups by Desi Sills, including a three-point play and a corner triple by Nowell, though, helped Kansas State tie the game at 39 points with 14:32 left in the game.
Kansas State reassumed their halftime lead with just under 11 minutes left in the game when Johnson converted on a layup. Reeves then missed his 12 shot of the game, including his seventh straight 3-pointer, before a Nowell layup gave Kansas State a four-point lead with 10:15 left, forcing a Kentucky timeout.
Tshiebwe made two free throws after N’Guessan was given his fourth foul going for a rebound. The two free throws gave Kentucky a 52-51 lead. Tshiebwe then recorded his 17th rebound and turned it into a dunk to put Kentucky up three. But Nowell scored his 12th point of the second half when he made his second 3-pointer of the half to tie the game at 54.
With Kansas State down four points, Nowell stepped up and buried a massive 3-pointer, scoring his 15th point of the second half to make it a 60-59 game before forcing a steal on the defensive end to give Kansas State the ball back with 3:20 left in the game. Nowell drew a shooting foul to get to the line, where he made both free throws to give Kansas State a 61-60 lead.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Ish Massoud and Johnson to put Kansas State ahead 67-62 with just over a minute left in the game. It was Johnson’s first make in four attempts from the perimeter. The two made 3-pointers by Kansas State improved them to 5-of-9 from deep in the second half.
Kentucky shot just 3-of-19 from the perimeter in the loss with their best shooter, Reeves, going an atrocious 1-of-10 from behind the arc in the game with his only making with less than 10 seconds left.
K-State converted on 8-of-8 free throws in the final 37 seconds of the game to clinch the victory the six-point win.
With the win, Kansas State advances to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2018. Kansas State plays the winner of No. 2 seeded Marquette and No. 7 seeded Michigan State at Madison Square Garden.