NEW YORK — Markquis Nowell walked the basketball upcourt with the score tied in the final minute of overtime and exchanged animated hand signals with his coach, Jerome Tang.
Standing on the March Madness logo at Madison Square Garden, the 5-foot-8, 160-pound Kansas State point guard who grew up in Harlem glanced at the hoop for a split second and flicked a chest pass into the lane. Keyontae Johnson slipped behind the Michigan State defense, elevated with his back to the basket, grabbed the ball and slammed it down.
It was the signature play of a towering performance by the shortest player on the floor.
Nowell broke the NCAA Division I men's tournament record for assists in a game with 19, his last two on spectacular passes in the final minute of the five-minute extra period, and Kansas State beat Michigan State 98-93 on Thursday night in a Sweet 16 thriller.
"Today was a special one, man," said Nowell, who fought through a second-half ankle injury. "I've got to give a lot to credit to my teammates for battling, for fighting through adversity when we was down. I can't even explain how I'm feeling right now. I just know that I'm blessed and I'm grateful."
Nowell's alley-oop to Johnson with 52 seconds left in overtime gave the Wildcats (26-9) the lead for good in a back-and-forth East Region semifinal.
"I mean, it was just a basketball play between me and Keyontae," Nowell said. "We knew how Michigan State plays defense. They play high up, and Keyontae just told me — we got eye contact, and he was like, lob, lob. I just threw it up, and he made a great play."
Michigan State cut the lead to one before Nowell bounced an inbound pass from under the basket to Ismael Massoud, who knocked down a jumper with 17 seconds left that put Kansas State ahead 96-93 and gave Nowell the assists record.
With Michigan State needing a 3 to tie, Nowell stole the ball from the Spartans' Tyson Walker and drove for a clinching layup at the buzzer. Nowell finished with 20 points and five steals in a signature performance at basketball's most famous arena. UNLV's Mark Wade had the previous NCAA tourney assists record with 18 during the Runnin' Rebels' 1987 Final Four win over Indiana.
Tang, the energetic, 56-year-old first-year head coach who was hired to lead the Wildcats after two decades as an assistant at fellow Big 12 program Baylor University, gave all the credit to his senior point guard.
"Well, what really helps is that all 10 eyes on the defense have to pay attention to him, and that's what allows everybody else to get open," Tang said. "It's not just that he sees it, but they all have to pay attention to him when he has the ball in his hands."
Johnson — the Florida transfer who was sidelined for nearly two years after he collapsed on the court during a game in December 2020 — scored 22 points for the third-seeded Wildcats. Kansas State will face ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic (34-3) — a 62-55 winner over No. 4 seed Tennessee in Thursday's second semifinal at the Garden — on Saturday as it seeks the program's first Final Four berth since 1964.
A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 25 points for seventh-seeded Michigan State (21-13). Joey Hauser added 18 points and Walker had 16, including a layup with five seconds left in regulation that forced the first overtime of this year's NCAA tournament.
Nowell turned his ankle early in the second half, was helped off the court and had it taped. Michigan State took the lead with him sidelined, and when he returned, he pushed off the ankle to bank in a 3-pointer that beat the shot clock and tied the game at 55.
Turns out he was just getting started. Neither team led by more than seven points in the final 15 minutes of regulation, and Nowell steadied Kansas State's offense down the stretch, finding Massoud for a 3 that made it 80-75 and hitting a jumper with 1:04 left for the Wildcats' final basket of regulation.
Massoud, who like Nowell honed his game on the playgrounds of Harlem, finished with 15 points for the Wildcats, who shot 55.9% from the field. They become only the second team to shoot better than 50% against the Spartans this season. Cam Carter added 12 points.
Jaden Akins added 14 points for coach Tom Izzo's Spartans, the final Big Ten team in the tournament. Michigan State outrebounded Kansas State 37-31 and finished 31-of-63 from the field (49.2%).
"We got caught mesmerized on Nowell," Izzo said. "He's a special player. We actually did a pretty good job on him. ... It was the assists that really killed us, and the back cuts."
The 68-year-old Izzo has led the Spartans to 25 straight NCAA tournaments but is still seeking his second national title. Since their championship in 2000, the Spartans have made six Final Fours, most recently in 2019.
Both teams were efficient from 3-point range in a tournament marked by some shaky outside shooting, with Michigan State going 13-of-25 (52%) and Kansas State 11-of-24 (45.8%).
Nowell was the difference, putting his name alongside New York City point guard greats such as Kenny Anderson, Bob Cousy, Mark Jackson and Kenny Smith, and sending Kansas State to its first Elite Eight since 2018.
Nowell has 64 points and 42 assists in three games in this tourney, including 14 assists in the first round against Montana State. He had nine assists against Kentucky, and one more would have given him double-doubles in all three games.
UConn 88, Arkansas 65
LAS VEGAS — Jordan Hawkins scored 24 points for the University of Connecticut, helping the Big East's Huskies get within one win of the Final Four as they routed the Razorbacks of the Southeastern Conference in a West Region semifinal.
Thanks to their Sweet 16 success, the fourth-seeded Huskies (28-8) will face No. 3 seed Gonzaga (31-5) in an Elite Eight showdown Saturday in Las Vegas. Arkansas is done after a 22-14 season that included taking down No. 1 seed Kansas, the 2022 NCAA champion, in the second round last weekend.
"I'm just proud of the way we've built this thing," said UConn coach Dan Hurley, who is in his fifth season. "We've got an incredible group of players, and we get the right type of people and we've got great culture. We're right where we thought we would be."
UConn played like a team capable of winning its fifth NCAA tourney title and first since 2014. The Huskies have outscored their three March Madness opponents by 62 points.
They won their first two games by outscoring Iona and Saint Mary's by a combined 86-49 in the second half. UConn surged early against Arkansas with a 14-point run and took a 46-29 lead into halftime.
The Huskies never trailed and led by as many as 29 points, going up 62-33. Arkansas answered with a 10-point run in just 27 seconds, but the outcome was never in doubt.
"They've got a real complete team, probably the most complete team in the country," Arkansas guard Ricky Council IV said. "I think they can definitely win it all."
UConn, which has won nine of its past 10 games, shot 57.4% compared to 31.7% for Arkansas. The Huskies dominated inside by outrebounding the Razorbacks 43-31 and outscoring them 42-24 in the lane.
Adama Sanogo scored 18 points, Alex Karaban had 11 and Nahiem Alleyene 10 for UConn. Sanogo, who also had eight rebounds, has scored 71 points in 75 minutes this tournament.
Anthony Black led the Hogs with 20 points, Council had 17 and Nick Smith Jr. added 11.
Arkansas, which was seeded eighth, was in the Sweet 16 for the third year in a row. The Razorbacks also reached the Elite Eight the past two years, and a third consecutive appearance would have been a first in program history.
Gonzaga 79, UCLA 76
Julian Strawther hit a 3-pointer with six seconds left to answer a 3 by UCLA's Amari Bailey, lifting the Bulldogs to a wild win over the Bruins in the Sweet 16.
UCLA (31-6), the West Region's No. 2 seed, stormed back from an eight-point deficit in the final 1:05 and took a 76-75 lead on Bailey's long-range strike with 12.2 seconds left.
Gonzaga (31-5) brought the ball up the floor, and Strawther stepped into a 3 of his own, sending Bulldogs fans to their feet.
Malachi Smith stole the ball from Tyger Campbell on UCLA's ensuing possession, but Strawther hit only one of his two free throws at the other end, giving the Bruins a last chance.
Campbell's 3-point try at the buzzer hit the back of the rim, though, sending the Bulldogs into celebration mode and the Elite Eight.