In the end, it worked out for Kansas State, but not without serious growing pains.
The Wildcats, playing their first away game under coach Jerome Tang, led by 20 points in less than three minutes of the second half, only to almost evaporate on Friday night before regrouping at Berkeley’s Haas Pavilion to beat California at 63 : ward off 54, California.
Cal (0-2) came within a point but never took the lead. K-State went 2-0 undefeated under Tang.
The Wildcats were led by Keyontae Johnson with 16 points and nine rebounds, while Markquis Nowell had 13 points and seven assists and Nae’Qwan Tomlin had 11 points. Devin Askew had 17 points and Kuany Kuany 13 for Cal.
Here are three takeaways from K-State’s narrow escape.
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Growing pains lead to gains
As painful as it was for him to see a 20-point lead slip through the fingers of the Wildcats, Tang wouldn’t have had it any other way. Well, something like that.
“We wanted to play a street game and not a neutral location game, but a street game so we could experience some adversity,” Tang said. “No one ever wants to go through what we went through in the second half, but that’s how you learn and get better .”
K-State dominated the first half en route to a 36-21 halftime lead and extended it to 42-22 early in the second when Tomlin had two free throws left at 17-11.
Then the wheels started to loosen and Cal came back into play. Led by Askew and Kuany, the Golden Bears went on a 24-5 run and cut the lead to 47-46 on Sam Alajiki’s basket with 5-37 left.
Then Nowell took over, sparking a crucial eight-point wildcat run to create some separation. He started it by drawing a foul while dumping a corner 3-pointer and finished the four-point play followed by a driving layup.
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“That was a great pass from Desi Sills,” Nowell said of Sill’s kick-out for the 3-pointer. “I drove to him and kicked him and he drove him and made a great pass to me and I shot him and it was a four point game.”
The Wildcats then pushed the lead to nine when Nowell stole the ball and threw a lead outlet pass to Tomlin for a fast break dunk. Cal didn’t get any closer than five the rest of the way.
“As soon as I got the steal, I looked down and saw him sprinting across the court like he always does. I just gave it to him and he finished with a great dunk,” Nowell said. “That gave us some energy.”
Johnson, meanwhile, has proven he can be a good scorer when the Wildcats need a basket.
“Last game, I thought we played about 17 minutes,” Tang said of Texas-Rion Grande Valley’s season-opening blowout last Monday. “Today I thought we were really good in the first half down to the last possession and then we finished the game pretty well.
“In the second half we played well for about four to six minutes so I thought we probably got 24 to 25 minutes together today so we’re building up and going in the right direction.”
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First-half lockdown defense drives K-State
Cal was admittedly sloppy on offense in the first half, but K-State made it difficult for the Bears by supporting defense and drawing five attacks during that period.
Cal rotated the ball 15 times before the break and 22 times for the game.
Johnson, Desi Sills and Abayomi Iyiola all pulled in the half for the Wildcats.
“I thought our pace and quickness affected them, but even if you defend in front of your bench, you have the whole team calling their actions and helping you,” Tang said. “So there’s always a difference in the second half . But I felt our bank did a great job of getting information out there and the guys were really locked in.”
Well, if they can do that for an entire game.
“That first half was really special,” said Nowell. “We showed what we can do.
“We came out and played really aggressively with them and caused them to flip the ball and that led to us making easy transition points. In the first half we did a really good job of closing gaps and knowing the scouting staff. If we could just bring in two halves of that, we’re going to be a really good, special team.”
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Markquis Nowell shoots and acts
Nowell has been an exceptional distributor for the first half of this season so far. He had six of his seven assists in the opening period last Monday against Texas-Rio Grande Valley and scored against Cal with six in the half and the outlet for Tomlin to complete the crucial eight-point run down the stretch.
But Nowell’s highlight was a transition behind the back to a trailing Nae’Qwan Tomlin for a monster dunk. Nowell and Tomlin teamed up for a similar match against UTRGV.
“We train a lot together and I know what he’s capable of on the quick break,” Nowell said of the 6-foot-10 Tomlin. When he gave it up, I knew I was going to give it back to him right away because he was lagging behind, so the rest is just history.”
Throw in the crucial six-point scoring sprint and three steals, and it was a complete game for Nowell.
“His defense was really good tonight too,” Tang said. “They only had him for three steals, but I’ll go back and watch the game because it looked like five or six.”
K-State will be back in action at home on Thursday when they host Kansas City in a 5:30 p.m. game at the Bramlage Coliseum. The game is the front end of a doubleheader with the women’s team hosting Iowa at 8 p.m.
Arne Green lives in Salina and covers Kansas State University esports for the Gannett network. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @arnegreen.