It was an electric first night of the season for the Kansas State men and first-year head coach Jerome Tang as the Wildcats demolished Texas-Rio Grande Valley 93-59 in front of a near-full and raucous student section Monday night.
The win is Tang’s first as a head coach, officially. Tang and the Wildcats also won their exhibition game last week and the new coach won four games at Baylor as an interim head coach, none of which count toward his total record.
“Well, it was great to have my family here,” Tang said after the game. “And Dr. Jennifer Cooper, who was the principal at Heritage Christian who first hired me, and her husband Royce Cooper, they came to my first game as a college head coach. So did David Kelly, who was the pastor of the church. And so to have them here to experience this with me, was very special … it was just a terrific experience.”
The 93 points were the most scored in a season-opener since 2014.
The Wildcats were led by senior Markquis Nowell and junior Nae’Qwan Tomlin who both had 14. Nowell was 3-of-5 from the floor, all of which came from 3-point land. He also had a game-high seven assists, four steals and just one turnover.
“I put in a lot of work this summer,” Nowell said. “I didn't really have many days off. I would just stay in the gym and I just worked tirelessly on my shot and on my playmaking and being under control.”
Tomlin, meanwhile, was 6-of-12 from the floor with eight rebounds which was a team-high.
“(Tomlin's) super talented, right?” Tang said. “And so his ability to make plays one-on-one, because of his length and his ball skills, he can get a shot off at any time. Those things are real positives, and there's some other things that he can get better at. But tonight, I thought he was pretty good.”
Joining those two in double-digits was senior forward Keyontae Johnson who had 13, senior center Abayomi Iyiola who had 12 and senior guard Desi Sills and junior forward Ismael Massoud who each had 10.
The game was Johnson’s first in two years following an on-court collapse in a game during the 2020 season due to a heart condition.
“I told the guys tonight, whether you felt you played well or didn't play well or played a lot or didn't play, nobody should be unhappy tonight because Keyontae Johnson played a basketball game,” Tang said. “A real game, an NCAA basketball game for the first time in two years. We have several guys on our team that had some tough roads to get here and this is a second opportunity for them, so we just have to be really excited about that.”
Monday was also the first time K-State had six players in double-figures since a game versus Colorado State in December of 2016.
“The positive is that we shared the ball,” Tang said. “25 assists to 30 made buckets.. That's the positive. The negative is that the game is 40 minutes long and I felt we only played about 17 minutes at the intensity level and focus that we need to in order to win Big 12 games, much less Big 12 road games. Our goal now is to stretch that 17, to 25, to 35 and to get it there at some point in time.”
Rio Grande Valley senior Justin Johnson was the Vaqueros main source of offense Monday night, leading all players with 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting.
The Wildcats jumped out to an early 15-3 lead after a 10-0 run that featured an acrobatic dunk from senior Tykei Greene.
"That was crazy," Nowell said. "I mean, I saw it coming, but I didn't know us he was going to do that. He set the tone for that little spurt that we had. His dunk gave the crowd some energy and then we just fed off that."
That run was comprised in a larger 22-4 blitz throughout the second five minutes of the game that featured 4 3-pointers (two from Johnson) and a dunk from Tomlin off a behind-the-back pass from Nowell, pushing the lead to 27-7 with 10 minutes to play in the first half.
A lot of that offense came off of the 26 turnovers that K-State forced in the course of the game. The Wildcats scored 31 points off those turnovers compared to just the nine points Rio Grande Valley scored off the Wildcats' 14 miscues.
A Vaquero 3-pointer at the 4:27 mark of the first half was the first field goal for Rio Grande Valley in over three minutes. The Wildcats responded right back though with an outside make of their own from Greene.
K-State shot 56.1% from behind the arc in the first half.
The Wildcats led by as much as 30 in the first half and went into halftime leading 52-26 after a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Greene.
In the second half, K-State wasn't nearly as flashy, but they were effective, stretching the lead to as much as 36 on 39.4% shooting.
Iyiola was dominant in the second period, going 5-of-5 from the floor, scoring 10 of his 12 total points, which led all Wildcat bench scorers.
“He's so kind, courteous, and thoughtful,” Tang said. “He's such a hard worker and so diligent, tries to do everything the right way. And so it's really cool to watch him have success … I knew he could make a mid-range shot. I knew he could short roll. Today, he did it with confidence. That was cool to see and his energy is contagious.”
Up next, K-State travels to Berkley on Friday to take on California. The game is scheduled to tip at 6 p.m. and will be televised on the Pac-12 Network.
The Golden Bears lost their season-opener to UC Davis Monday night.
“I'm excited about it,” Tang said. “We planned this. This is the one game that we scheduled, everything else was scheduled for us, and I wanted to play a good team on the road. Because if you're going to have a chance to win this league, if you're going to have a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament… Tough teams can win row games, right? That's just the mark of a tough team.”