‘This is my city’: On an indelible, incredible night for K-State’s Markquis Nowell

·6 min read

Every once in a while in sports, we just happen to get the priceless and indelible scenario of the perfect ending to an amazing event. The sort of thing that feels like an out-of-body experience just to witness as it happens.

Kansas State’s spellbinding Markquis Nowell furnished just that on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, which appropriately enough still is regarded by many as the mecca of basketball itself.

Miles from where he grew up, the Harlem native who already had broken the NCAA Tournament single-game assist record with a stupefying 19, stole the ball from fellow New Yorker Tyson Walker with three seconds left in overtime.

Last threat from seventh-seeded Michigan State averted, Nowell bolted down the court to punctuate the 98-93 victory with a layup in a game that sent third-seeded K-State to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2018 — with a chance to advance to its first Final Four since 1964 on Saturday against ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic.

All with what he estimated were around 200 people here to see him. Not to mention thousands of K-State fans in the building.

“This is my city!” the man whose Twitter handle is @MrNewYorkCityy appeared to yell after one of his late baskets in a game also marked by his 20 points, five steals and one dramatic return from an ankle injury.

Hemmed in by the media at his locker after the game in a way Michigan State only could have hoped to have done earlier, Nowell almost sheepishly said, “Yeah, I kind of said that.”

But you could hardly blame him for the boldness on the court.

In fact, he needn’t have been so parochial.

Because this isn’t just his city; it’s been his NCAA Tournament, particularly with 47 points and 28 assists in the last two games after stoking the Wildcats past Michigan State in the first overtime game of the 2023 NCAA tourney.

If it ended Thursday, he’d be not only its most outstanding player but its most captivating because of his size (5-foot-8 … perhaps), the verve and nerve with which he plays the game and his uncanny sense of where he is and where to go with the ball.

I never had the pleasure of watching Patrick Mahomes play basketball. But with the no-look, between the legs and behind-the-back passes we’ve seen Nowell make the last two games, we imagine that might look a bit like this.

For that matter, Mahomes sure seemed to enjoy Nowell’s game on Thursday. He retweeted several posts about Nowell and commented on Nowell’s return from an ankle injury when KSHB41’s McKenzie Nelson compared it to what Mahomes was dealing with in the playoffs.

“He’s got it! I believe!!” wrote Mahomes, amplifying it with two flexed-bicep emojis.

And now there’s lots to believe in about this K-State program in its first season under charismatic coach Jerome Tang, who brought in 11 new scholarship players … with considerable help from returnee and zealous recruiter Nowell.

Among the other breakthroughs he’s cultivated, the Big 12 Coach of the Year has infused this group with a certain unique energy that enabled the Wildcats in his first Sweet 16 to beat Michigan State and coach Tom Izzo in his 15th such trip.

“I hope y’all saw the love that they have for each other, the joy with which they play and the freedom that they’re allowed to be out there and play (with),” Tang said.

We did. Because it showed up all over the floor, to be sure, and the box score provided further testimony with Keyontae Johnson’s 22 points and Ish Massoud’s 15.

“I wouldn’t have 19 assists,” Nowell said, “if they didn’t make any shots.”

But nothing resonated like the play of Nowell — whom Izzo suggested at times had “mesmerized” his team.

Just like he did the rest of us.

The spectacle included the frightful scene of Nowell going down hard with an ankle injury with 15 minutes 32 seconds left in regulation and K-State leading 50-46.

The Spartans embarked on a 9-2 run as he was treated on the sideline. And while Nowell would later say he’d just rolled the ankle and never doubted he’d return, it looked iffy before he hobbled back in 2 minutes later … and promptly made what was literally and figuratively a staggering three-point shot.

Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell makes an off-balance three-pointer just before the shot clock expired during the second half of a Sweet 16 win over Michigan State at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell makes an off-balance three-pointer just before the shot clock expired during the second half of a Sweet 16 win over Michigan State at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.

On the verge of falling as he turned toward the basket and the shot clock was closing in on him, he banked it in.

And if you dismissed the improbable shot as a mere prayer, well, here’s what he said when I asked him how he made it:

“I don’t even know. I mean, it was a prayer that I threw up. I just tried to get it on the rim so that my teammates could get a second chance on the offensive end. But it went in, and the prayer was answered.”

Rousing as the play was, it only tied the game at 55-55 and set the stage for the rest of the instant classic that Nowell likened to “a ‘Rocky’ fight.”

It extended into overtime at 82-82 after Walker’s driving layup with five seconds left … and Nowell’s errant shot as time expired.

But Johnson put K-State up for keeps on his reverse dunk off a lob from Nowell, who at least in part set it up with a squabble with Tang — and after proclaiming “watch this” to courtside onlookers, including former NBA star Isiah Thomas and a friend Nowell hadn’t realized was former Michigan State star Mateen Cleaves.

“Dang, I’ve got to watch what I say,” Nowell said, laughing, noting the duo had been rooting for Michigan State.

Just the same, he added, “I’m like, ‘Y’all not going to win today,’ and I just kept looking at him for some added motivation. But it was nothing but cool vibes with them over there.”

And nothing but incredible vibes from the most outstanding player in the tournament.

In his city, no less — where he’s learned from so many predecessors and mentors “and mixed it all up in one,” Nowell said, “... and I came up with Markquis Nowell.”

In his city, a term that erupted from him in the crucible.

“I was pumped up about being in that ‘place of fire’ that Coach always talks about,” he said, “and I love that place.”

A place when the game is at its most intense, he explained, with everything on the line.

“That’s when,” he said, “stars are made.”

And when you can’t believe what you just saw.