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K-State uses familiar formula, knocks off Montana State in NCAA first round

Kansas State's Keyontae Johnson drives for a layup in Friday night's first-round NCAA victory over Montana State. (Photo: Kansas State Athletics)

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Anyone who watches Kansas State basketball knows that they like to create opportunities for themselves in the paint. Montana State got its own first-hand knowledge of the Wildcats' paint proclivity in Friday night's NCAA first-round contest.

The Wildcats scored 48 points in the paint, converted 21-of-26 layup attempts and assisted on 21 of 32 baskets, keeping the Bobcats at bay in a battle of felines in a 77-65 victory inside Greensboro Coliseum.

"You know, we've been a paint point team all year long. It's just something that is an emphasis for us," K-State coach Jerome Tang said after the game. "Whether we get there by the dribble or the pass, it's just something that is a point of emphasis for us."

Wildcat guard Markquis Nowell added, "When you get to the paint, it draws so much attention, and we have dynamic players, dynamic guards that can get to the paint and create for each other. You just saw it today. When we play together and for each other, we're a really good team."

Kansas State (25-9) got outstanding efforts from Nowell and Keyontae Johnson in the opening half, with the duo tagging up to contribute 20 of the Wildcats' 34 first-half points. The 'Cats hit 15-of-29 (51.7 percent) in the half, with Nowell and Johnson combining to knock down 9-of-15. The effort afforded Kansas State a 34-28 lead at the interval.

Montana State (25-11) was within striking distance at the half because of its own star performer. Bobcat guard RaeQuan Battle, a Wasnington transfer, compiled 13 points in the period, notching a 5-for-9 shooting performance and hitting both threes he attempted in the opening stanza. While most players from lower seeds are unfamiliar to higher-seeded coaches, Tang was familiar with Battle's game from coaching against him while he was a Husky.

"He is a big-time talent. He was making tough shots, and that's what big-time players do," Tang said. "I thought he was really good at Washington. He is a high major player, and coaches did a great job of developing his game and allowing him to play free. You can just see the confidence that he has as a player. He is hard to guard. We were trying to limit his touches, and he just rolls up and made big shots after big shots."

The Bobcats were compelled to rest Battle for the final segment-plus of the first half, however, due to his collecting his second foul. The absence, while a problem, did not shut down the club's offensive effort, as their head coach noted.

"We didn't want him to pick up his third, and I knew they were going to draw a foul," Montana State coach Danny Sprinkle said. "I don't think it hurt our momentum. In fact, we made a run to get back, and I think we cut it to six at the end of the first half."

Battle continued to knock down big shots as the second half unfolded. Unfortunately for Battle and his Bobcat teammates, K-State knocked down their own big shots. As the Bobcats continued to punch, the Wildcats countered nearly every time. Battle drained back-to-back jumpers to slice the MSU deficit to four with 18:43 to play. The rally stalled there, however, as the Bobcats could draw no closer.

"Everyone in the country has struggled with them," Sprinkle said. "Nowell, I mean, he is just tremendous. He is so fast and quick. He has some of the quickest hands that I have seen defensively, even loose-ball rebounds. He comes up with everything.I thought he controlled the game like a good point guard does.

"Keyontae Johnson is tremendous. A big, thick body. He made all those midrange shots. When he gets going putting the ball on the floor, he is so strong and athletic that, I mean, we don't see a lot of guys like that in our league."

Sprinkle acknowledged that his club would draw helpful lessons from this outing.

"For us to want to -- we want to eventually knock these teams off, and in order to do that, you have to be -- you have to be physical. You have to be able to play physical for 40 minutes, not 30, and get multiple bodies thrown at you," Sprinkle said. "We'll learn even a lot from this film, but I think going forward it gives our guys a lot of confidence playing Kansas State, one of the top teams in the country, pretty much down to the wire."

The victory marked Tang's first NCAA tournament win as a head coach. He and his players both enjoyed their first taste of tournament competition and advancement, while remaining focused on the task at hand.

"The seeding doesn't matter in college basketball," Tang said. "It's about that 40 minutes because the ball doesn't know seed numbers. It just knows hoopers. You've got to go get it."

"It's big. A lot of us on the team haven't made it to the tournament yet, so we always preach just enjoy the moment, and we just try to go out there and have fun," Johnson said. "For us to get the win it showed how well-connected we were together and how much we love each other today."

"Today was a blessing. I mean, we all have fun out there," Nowell added. "It was a joy to be a part of that, but winning is even better when you get to do that."

Nowell tied a career-high in assists with 14 for the Wildcats, joining with his 17 points for a double-double. Johnson led the Wildcats in scoring, compiling 18 on 7-for-12 shooting. Forward Nae'Quan Tomlin added 13, hitting 6-of-9. David N'Guessan hit 4-of-7 off the bench to contribute 10 in 19 minutes of play.

K-State hit 32-of-55 tries (58.2 percent) on the night, using their shooting to keep Montana State at a safe distance. The Wildcats hit just 26.7 percent (4-for-15) beyond the arc. KSU added 13 points in transition and 12 off turnovers.

Battle led all scorers, putting 26 on the board on a 9-for-17 shooting performance. Forward Great Osobor and guard Darius Brown added 12 apiece, with Osobor hauling in seven boards and Brown dishing nine dimes. The Bobcats hit 46.3 percent (25-for-54) from the field, also struggling from distance in hitting 6-for-21 (28.6 percent). MSU scored 30 in the paint and handed out 14 helpers of their own.

The third-seeded Wildcats advance to battle the sixth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats in second-round action Sunday afternoon. Tip time is set for 2:40pm (Eastern), with television coverage on CBS.


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