New York, Las Vegas players shine brightest in March Madness
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Long known as the city that never sleeps, New York has a rival for that title in 24/7 Las Vegas, and in both places, stars shine as bright as the neon lights in Times Square or the Vegas Strip.
Two of the biggest moments in this year's NCAA Tournament came in those two cities Thursday night — both thanks to players taking center stage in their hometowns.
Kansas State's Markquis Nowell's nearly no-look alley-oop pass while seemingly bickering with coach Jerome Tang quickly went viral. That was one of the New York native's NCAA Tournament-record 19 assists, which broke the 36-year-old record of UNLV's Mark Wade.
Down Tropicana Avenue from UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center, Julian Strawther returned to Las Vegas and made a shot from the March Madness logo with 7.2 seconds left that put Gonzaga ahead for good against UCLA.
Both players had different day-after reactions, with Nowell overjoyed at making the back pages of the New York tabloids and Strawther preferring to quickly put the big shot behind him and focus on a UConn team playing as well as any this March.
Nowell could hardly sleep after living the dream of so many kids who grow up playing basketball on the blacktop courts in and around New York City.
After a few hours of shut-eye, Nowell was awoken by a FaceTime call from his older brother, who had something to show him.
The Daily News proclaimed him “King of Manhattan,” a reference to both the borough and the city Kansas State calls home. The New York Post dubbed Nowell “The King of New York.”
“To be on the newspapers feels surreal,” Nowell said.
Former Knicks star Carmelo Anthony was among those in attendance at The Garden to see the 5-foot-8 Nowell and the Wildcats' 98-93 overtime victory against Michigan State. Nowell also had 20 points and five steals.
“I’m just embracing it and trying to stay in the moment,” Nowell said. “You don’t get these moments back.”
Nowell has played at Melo's gym on the West Side, not far from The Garden, and his relationship with the 10-time NBA All-Star goes back years.
“I’ve been trying to catch up with all my family, friends and, of course, celebrities have been reaching out, but it’s just too much coming in right now," Nowell said.
Anthony congratulated Nowell in person, with a pat on the chest after the game. Nowell said he also heard via social media from Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes as well as NBA All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Trae Young.
“I haven’t gotten a chance to answer all my text messages yet, all my DMs,” Nowell said. “But I see it all.”
Nowell also heard from maybe the NBA's greatest little giant, Muggsy Bogues, who at 5-3 played in the league from 1987-2000.
“He laid the foundation for smaller guards,” Nowell said.
Nowell turned his right ankle during the second half against Michigan State. It didn't keep him out of the game for long. Ice, elevation and rest were prescribed to get him ready for Saturday's Elite Eight game against ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic.
Nowell said the ankle was feeling about 85% and he went through third-seeded K-State's closed practice.
Strawther doesn't have any apparent physical ailments, but could have the emotions of maybe playing his final college game in Las Vegas when third-seeded Gonzaga faces No. 4 UConn on Saturday. He is projected as a second-round NBA draft pick and could turn pro after this season.
But Strawther emphasized the task at hand, and he knows the challenge of facing a UConn team that has won all three tournament games by double digits. It's part of why he also didn't want to get too caught up in the moment of beating UCLA.
He said once the team left T-Mobile Arena following the 79-76 victory over UCLA, its focus turned to the Huskies.
“Because it's March, there’s no time to dwell on the past and try to live in that moment too much,” Strawther said Friday. “I mean tomorrow’s already game day. That’s what we’ve got our eyes set on.”
Experience has been a good teacher in that regard.
It was just two years ago that Jalen Suggs crossed midcourt and banked in a shot to also beat the Bruins. That shot put the Bulldogs in the national championship game.
Two nights later, Baylor made quick work of Gonzaga with an 86-70 victory that was even more one-sided than the score indicated.
That's as close as the Zags have come to winning it all, though this is their sixth appearance in the Elite Eight.
This has been one of the more overlooked Gonzaga teams, one that even coach Mark Few said he doubted early in the season. The Zags lost five times this season and their three-year run of being a No. 1 seed ended.
“We had some rough patches this year that may have brought some dark times and a little bit of negative energy,” Strawther said. “But at the same time, we did an amazing job of bouncing back and playing through adversity. I think we’ve hung our hats on our ability to fight through adversity and having resilience throughout the season.
“In March Madness, that’s a great quality and great trait to have, and it’s already shown up twice in our run so far. Hopefully we can continue this run and be the first team to cut down the nets.”
Russo reported from New York.
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