Three takeaways from Kansas State basketball's 79-76 Elite Eight loss to Florida Atlantic
NEW YORK — In a season where Kansas State exceeded all expectations, eight, alas, was enough.
For the eighth straight time in an NCAA Tournament regional final since their last Final Four appearance 59 years ago, the Wildcats came up empty in the Elite Eight on Saturday night with a disappointing 79-76 loss to Florida Atlantic at Madison Square Garden.
No. 3 seed K-State, which just a few months ago was picked to finish last in the Big 12, beat perennial powers Kentucky and Michigan State to reach the East Region championship game. But there the Wildcats ran into a ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic team leading an even more Cinderella-like existence.
The Wildcats led by as many as seven points midway through the second half and had chances to add to it, only to suffer through a brutal 10-minute stretch in which FAU flipped the script. A 15-1 run put the Owls up eight with less than three minutes left, and K-State's final desperation comeback fell one basket short.
After Florida Atlantic's Michael Forrest hit his third and fourth free throws of the last 18 seconds with 6.9 on the clock, K-State wasn't able get off a potential tying shot to get to overtime.
More:Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson leave Kansas State basketball with lasting legacy
More:Florida Atlantic's Cinderella story continues and Kansas State basketball's dream ends, 79-76
With the loss, K-State finished at 26-10 in its first season under coach Jerome Tang. Not only did they defy all predictions by finishing third in the rugged Big 12, but also put together three impressive tournament performances in victories over Montana State (77-65) and Kentucky (75-69) in Greensboro, North Carolina, and then claiming a 98-93 overtime decision against Michigan State on Thursday in the Sweet 16.
"It was more than I could have ever dreamed of as far as the joy that these young fellas brought to my life," Tang said. "How great it was to live life (with them)."
For K-State, K-State point guard Markquis Nowell closed out his college career with another double-double, scoring 30 points and dishing out 12 assists. Junior forward Nae'Qwan Tomlin added 14 points and a team-high six rebounds.
But leading scorer Keyontae Johnson, another senior who is likely headed to the NBA draft — technically he has one year of eligibility remaining — was saddled with foul trouble throughout the game and limited to nine points in 18 minutes.
More:Kansas State basketball counting on tried and true habits against Florida Atlantic
While disappointed, Nowell, who like Johnson was a first-team All-Big 12 and third-team All-America selection, said he had no regrets.
"I'm just blessed and grateful," he said. "Nobody expected us to be here. We were picked last in the Big 12. To be third (seed) and in the Elite Eight, that's a blessing."
Florida Atlantic, which had never won an NCAA Tournament game before this year, got 17 points from Alijah Martin, 16 from Bryan Greenlee, 14 and 13 rebounds from center Vladislav Goldin and 13 points from Johnell Davis.
"They were tough," Tang said of the Owls. "They were the tougher team today. There's no sugarcoating that.
"They remind me a lot of the team that we had at Baylor that won the national championship. Tough guards who could make plays. Big fellows who do their job, and their togetherness.
"They're really, really connected."
Here are three takeaways from a disappointing ending to an otherwise transformative season for K-State.
More:Injury and all, Markquis Nowell simply willed Kansas State basketball to epic overtime win
Lack of rebounding too much to overcome
Florida Atlantic's season rebounding average might have raised some red flags for a Kansas State team that for much of the year struggled on the boards. The Owls came into the game ranked No. 18 nationally with 39 rebounds per game and 22nd with an average rebounding margin of 5.7.
But it was the Owls' work on the offensive glass — where they are a pedestrian 109th at 10.9 per game — that ultimately did K-State in.
Not only did FAU double the Wildcats up on the boards overall, 44-22, but enjoyed a 14-5 margin on the offensive end, leading to what proved to be an insurmountable 15-2 advantage in second-chance points.
"They outrebounded us. They pounded us on the glass," Tang said bluntly.
More:Three takeaways from Kansas State basketball's overtime thriller against Michigan State
FAU set the tone on the board on its opening possession with four offensive rebounds. But it was two near the end of the game that derailed a frantic K-State comeback and ultimately secured the victory.
After the Wildcats trimmed and eight-point deficit to three on two Ismael Massoud free throws and a Nowell 3-pointer, FAU's Golden missed a layup on the other end. But guard Nick Boyd grabbed the rebound, giving the Owls another shot.
And then, when Boyd failed to convert and one-and-one free-throw opportunity with 1:32 on the clock, Martin snagged another offensive board, and this time FAU made the Wildcats pay with a Davis layup at the 1:15 mark for a 74-69 cushion.
"That was the key," K-State guard Desi Sills said. "They got two clutch rebounds on the free-throw line where we forgot to block out. That's just team effort there.
"They won 50-50 balls tonight, so you've got to give credit to them."
More:Kansas State basketball advances to Elite Eight with 98-93 overtime win over Michigan State
Foul trouble grounds Keyontae Johnson
When K-State's Johnson picked up his second foul on a charge with 12:01 left in the first half, Tang elected to sit him the rest of the half. It worked out to the degree that the Wildcats kept the game within reach and trailed just 42-38 at intermission.
"As long as we could keep the game close in the first half, I was OK with keeping him on the bench," Tang said. "So everybody did a good job and it's a four-point game, and if we don't miss some layups it's tied at halftime.
"I just didn't want to be hamstrung for the second half. Unfortunately he got three and four."
Johnson, who scored just two first-half points, started the second period with two straight baskets to tie the game at 42-42. But with 17:22 left, he was whistled for his third foul while diving for a loose ball.
He stayed on the floor, and at the 15:02 mark he knocked down a 3-pointer that gave K-State a five-point lead, but that was his last basket. He picked up his fourth foul with 14:10 left and then fouled out with 2:44 remaining.
"There's this crazy stat that if you sit a guy in the first half with two fouls, that like 90% of the time they don't ever pick up their fifth one," Tang said. "And so he happened to fall into that 10% who picks up his fifth foul."
Johnson said he was simply too aggressive in the second half.
"(Tang) wanted me to just have two fouls coming into the second half and try to play it smart, but I wanted to win the game bad and just tried to do whatever I could for the team," Johnson said. "It's just part of the game."
More:Kansas State basketball guard Desi Sills crams New York tourist activities into a few hours
Final shot never materializes
Kansas State twice trimmed FAU's lead to a single point in the closing seconds, only to have Forrest answer with two free throws on both occasions. Still, the Wildcats had 6.9 seconds left, down three, to go for a tying 3-pointer, only to be stonewalled by the Owls' defense.
Nowell, who already had hit 5 of 11 3-pointers in the game, brought the ball across center court but passed to Massoud to his right. Massoud had hit a clutch basket in overtime against Michigan State and a big 3-pointer in the last two minutes of the second-round victory over Kentucky.
But when Massoud put the ball on the floor, FAU knocked it loose and time expired without a shot attempt.
"I tried to get Ish a shot because the right wing is where he makes most of his threes at," Nowell said. "They closed out hard and kind of chopped him."
Massoud said there wasn't enough time left to run a set play.
"It was get down, get a shot up," Massoud said. "(Nowell) got up the floor, he made a read and he tried to pass me the ball and I didn't get a shot, so it's tough."
Tang did not lay the blame on either Nowell or Massoud.
"It was disappointing," he said. "I didn't do a very good job. I'm more disappointed that I didn't do a better job of giving our guys (a chance)."
Arne Green is based in Salina and covers Kansas State University sports for the Gannett network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @arnegreen.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Kansas State men's basketball three takeaways against Florida Atlantic