NEW YORK CITY — There’s a mythic quality to New York City point guards and basketball in Madison Square Garden. You can roll your eyes at it if you don’t get it, but for those who believe in such things, it matters. It was the first question Kansas State guard Markquis Nowell was asked about in his press conference on the eve of the Sweet 16. He’s from here, and like many who have come before him he wears that hardwood identity on his sleeve (his Twitter account is @MrNewYorkCityy) after all. Tonight, Nowell wrote his own chapter in this building’s basketball lore with an all-time NCAA tournament performance in the Wildcats’ 98–93 overtime win.
First, there are his 19 assists, good for an NCAA tournament record. Only one Knicks player has ever had more in this building.
“This is probably my career high in assists ever,” Nowell said. “I had a couple games with 14, a couple games with 17 back in high school. But this one was special, in front of my hometown, in front of the city that loves me. I can't even put into words how blessed and grateful I am.”
He had them every which way in this game, including 10 in the first half. He bounced them through the lane, drew defenders to him only to whip the ball back against the grain, he found teammates between opponents, he fired them like a soccer throw-in, and multiple times he slipped them to cutting Wildcats on the baseline.
But his 18th, the record-tying one at the time, was the most miraculous of them all.
It started with Nowell bringing the ball up the court while yelling “watch this” to fellow short point guard, former Knicks executive and NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. The Spartans consistently played high up in the half court leaving room behind. Nowell and teammate Keyontae Johnson noticed it. Nowell looked at his coach Jerome Tang and signaled something. They were apparently not on the same page, but it didn’t matter. Nowell and Johnson were simpatico and that’s all that counted.
“He wanted to run one play, I wanted to run another one that would result in pretty much the same thing,” Tang said. “While they got caught up in us bickering with each other, he and Keyontae made eye contact and we got the back door. That’s two players making plays. Big time players make big time plays in big time moments. That’s what happened.”
There was a point in time when these heroics were in some doubt. Nowell at one point went down with an ankle injury. Michigan State immediately went on a 9-2 run with him on the bench and he was visibly trying to hurry up a tape job that was taking the opposite of a New York minute.
“He’s very competitive, we have a very good relationship,” athletic trainer Luke Sauber told Sports Illustrated. “I understand what he was getting at. I think he knew what I was trying to do too was give him a little more time and take my time and make sure I do a good job on what we’re trying to achieve. It’s good working with him. It’s a two way street. He tells me stuff I tell him stuff and we feed off each other. Trying to figure out what exactly he needed and trying to give him the best that I could do.”
It wasn’t exactly a Willis Reed in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals return to the game, but Nowell came back and certainly had his poetic moment when he hit this circus shot off the glass on his first offensive possession back.
“I just wanted to do it for my teammates,” Nowell said. “I love being out there with these guys, and I wasn't going to let a little injury like this that happens on the basketball court all the time to stop me from playing in the Sweet 16 and advancing to the Elite Eight.”
The game ended, fittingly, with the ball in Nowell’s hand with a strip and an up-and-under layup at the buzzer to put the exclamation point on a home game he dominated. Multiple times in the game he could be heard shouting “this is my city.” When asked about it after the game, his reply was simple:
“Yeah, it is.”
Who are you to tell him it isn’t?