How K-State forward Nae’Qwan Tomlin became ‘unstoppable’ in first March Madness game

Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle

Kansas State basketball players used a wide variety of words to describe the way Nae’Qwan Tomlin dominated in the paint during a 77-65 victory over Montana State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at Greensboro Coliseum.

But one seemed to describe his memorable performance better than the rest: “unstoppable.”

Tomlin scored with such ease against the No. 14 seed Bobcats that it felt like Jerome Tang’s game plan was as simple as getting him the ball and asking the rest of the Wildcats to get out of the way.

“It really was that simple,” K-State guard Cam Carter said. “We had a mismatch and we abused it. He was great. He is pretty versatile. No five man in the country can guard him. He proved it tonight. He was unstoppable.”

The only thing that slowed him down was foul trouble. After picking up a pair of early fouls Tomlin was relegated to the bench for most of the first half. And K-State struggled a bit with him as a spectator. Montana State traded punches with K-State at the start of the game and only trailed 34-26 at halftime.

It seemed like anybody’s game when both teams returned to the court for the second half. But then Tomlin got cooking and, well, Montana State’s upset dreams quickly disappeared.

Tomlin delivered a flurry of highlights over the final 20 minutes that included five layups, one free throw and a ferocious dunk that allowed the Wildcats to score a whopping 48 points in the paint and ultimately pull away for a blowout win.

“He was just being aggressive,” K-State forward Ismael Massoud said. “We need more of that from him, because a lot of the time he is too passive. When he has a big on him he looks to pass the ball on a set and that is too passive. Everyone on the team has the utmost confidence in him to take the big off the dribble and get to the basket. He just showed tonight that no big can stay in front of him.”

Tomlin’s best play was arguably when he totally fooled one of Montana State’s big men on a driving layup; he got into the lane and motioned as if he was going to try and score a layup from the left side of the basket, only to pivot to his right and score an uncontested bucket.

Fans were so impressed with the move that the entire arena seemed to gasp when he changed directions.

“I have to give credit to my teammates for that,” Tomlin said. “They picked me up at halftime and kept me level headed by saying that the second half was going to be my half. They said they were going to get me more involved and they needed me. I appreciated that.”

That layup seemed to give him a jolt of confidence, because he relentlessly attacked the basket for the remainder of the game. And Montana State had no answer for him.

“I had a lot of confidence,” Tomlin said. “My teammates were all telling me, ‘Yeah, go at him.’ They were clearing the floor for me and letting me go right at the defender. It was really good.”

His big game was a big development for the Wildcats. Even though some will say they will only go as far as Markquis Nowell (17 points, 14 assists) and Keyontae Johnson (18 points, eight rebounds) will take them during this NCAA Tournament, that really isn’t the case.

When K-State is at its best it is more than just a two-man team. Its stars do a lot of heavy lifting, sure, but everything runs more smoothly when role players like Tomlin step up and take a load off their shoulders.

“It helps a lot,” Johnson said. “It spaces out the court for us. He is a positionless player. He can attack bigs and score on bigs. For him to come out and just finish strong was a big spark for us. It got us all going.”

Tomlin might be of the utmost importance in K-State’s next game, at 1:40 p.m. on Sunday against No. 6 Kentucky.

Those Wildcats are led by one of the best forwards in all of college basketball — Oscar Tshiebwe. He averages a double-double and devoured Providence with eight points and an incredible 25 rebounds on Friday.

Going toe-to-toe with him will be no easy task. But it is also far from impossible. Tshiebwe is not known as a defensive stopper, especially when he is matched up against quicker forwards who can stretch the floor and shoot.

That is Tomlin. If he plays this well again and avoids foul trouble against Kentucky then K-State will take its chances in the Round of 32. He is an X-Factor moving forward.

Unstoppable players usually are.