Smiles were everywhere as first-year head coach Jerome Tang, surrounded by his players and staff, lifted an iguana and palm tree-themed trophy into the tropical air. Kansas State men’s basketball defeated LSU in the Cayman Islands Classic Championship 61-59, earning the tournament title.
The early minutes of the game mirrored the previous night’s Nevada match — a generally tight matchup, but one where the Wildcats struggled to find a lead. The difference against LSU was K-State’s struggle to answer Tiger runs. At the seven-minute mark in the first half, K-State trailed by their largest margin to that point, 10.
Scoring was a struggle for every Wildcat starter except forward Keyontae Johnson early on. LSU played a very physical game, giving K-State woes offensively and off the glass.
Going into halftime, K-State faced a 41-33 deficit. The main points of emphasis for Tang to address during the break had to be turnovers and rebounding. LSU grabbed seven offensive rebounds leading to several second-chance shots for the Tigers. K-State also committed 11 turnovers in the first half compared to the Tigers’ three.
Even with eight more turnovers, K-State was able to keep themselves in the game thanks to Johnson, guard Markquis Nowell and guard Desi Sills. Johnson spotted 10 points in the first half while Nowell and Sills each totaled nine, the latter being an added boost from the bench.
Wildcats advance to Cayman Islands championship in thriller
Not much changed after the break for the Wildcats, but they still battled, not letting the Tiger lead get out of hand. K-State trimmed their deficit to just six at the 12-minute mark, but they took a big hit in Johnson committing his fourth personal foul. The fourth foul meant Johnson would see little game-action until late into the second half.
Despite his absence, the Wildcats stayed the course and proved to be resilient in the face of adversity. At the 7:40 mark, K-State took their first significant lead of the game. A strong Wildcat force on defense stagnated the LSU offense, creating multiple transition buckets and scoring opportunities for the Wildcats.
Those final seven minutes were a hard-fought contest by both teams with countless ties and lead changes. With 32 seconds left on the clock, K-State owned the ball and a timeout to draw up a play that could give them the lead with little clock remaining for the Tigers.
The play: Nowell to Johnson, a passing of the baton from last night’s hero to tonight’s, but it wasn’t executed perfectly. After Nowell dished to Johnson, the ball got loose, and a scramble for both teams’ hopes to win ensued. Sills came up with the ball and quickly tossed it to Johnson who drained a mid-range jump shot to put K-State up two with 4.7 seconds to go.
During those last 4.7 seconds, chaos and confusion took place, leading to an ironically underwhelming victory. LSU inbounded the ball, made the way up the court and sent the game to overtime with a wide-open layup. However, the clock started late. Officials reviewed the play and decided that 4.7 had passed before the LSU shot took place. The Wildcats then flooded the court in celebration of being tournament champions.
The team moves to 6-0 in their first season under Tang – a season that is building an increasingly impressive resume that could pay dividends to a tourney bid in March.
The three players involved in the last play — Sills, Nowell and Johnson — owned the stat sheet. Nowell, named tournament MVP, tallied four assists, four rebounds, and 18 points. Johnson had four rebounds with 16 points in his limited minutes. Lastly, the off-the-bench star Sills recorded 16 points and five assists.
K-State will come back to playing on United States soil at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 30, at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse.