The island sun, sand and surf seemed to suit the Kansas State men just fine Monday evening as the Wildcats opened the Cayman Islands Classic basketball tournament with a 77-57 win over Rhode Island in a game that was never really close from the jump.
Three Wildcats ended in double-figures, led by junior Nae’Qwan Tomlin who led all players with 15 points. Senior Keyontae Johnson ended the game with 14 and junior David N’Guessan had 12.
N’Guessan also led the team in rebounding with seven boards.
"We really challenged him to use his speed and athleticism to make a difference out there," head coach Jerome Tang said of N'Guessan. "He really responded well, and so I was very, very pleased and happy for him."
Senior point guard Markquis Nowell came just a point short of a double-double, putting up nine points and 12 assists in the game.
His 12 assists tied fourth-most in a game in school history and were the most by a K-State player since Steve Henson also had 12 in 1989. It was his ninth game of his career with double-digit assists and his fourth since arriving in Manhattan last season.
"I was just making the right plays and my teammates were getting open," Nowell said. "I was just delivering it and they were knocking some shots down. So I gotta give all my credit to my teammates."
The dominance came despite 19 turnovers in the game, 13 of which came in the second half.
The Wildcats opened the game on a 14-2 run before Rhode Island got its second bucket of the game five minutes into the first half.
The Rams fought back to within seven before the Wildcats pulled away again on a 9-0 run, boosting their lead to 27-11.
"(Rhode Island) wanted to play fast and I just felt we were faster than them. So we wanted it to be an up and down game," Tang said. "In the second half they slowed the pace quite a bit but in the first half we enjoyed getting up and down the floor."
K-State’s lead grew to as much as 21 in the first half after a 3 from Tomlin hit with 2:25 to play in half.
Tomlin was a beast in the first 20 minutes, scoring 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting with five rebounds and three blocks. Tomlin added another rebound and two more blocks in the second half.
"He ran," Tang said. "He just ran and he was very active. Nae'Qwan can do a lot of different things on the basketball court and he allowed his speed to be a difference (today) and it was both defensively and then in transition into the offensive end."
The junior forward showed off that athleticism early in the game after a highlight play in which Tomlin took the ball, drove from outside the 3-point line and slammed it home with a one-handed dunk.
"Nae'Qwan is special," Nowell said. "He's a special talent. He's 6-foot-10, he can dribble, he can pass, he can score, he has a 40-inch vertical. But he hasn't surprised me much because I see it every day in practice. And I know he has new levels and new new heights that he can reach and I can't wait for him to reach those. He's doing amazing job each and every day coming in and getting better. So he's just a special talent."
K-State went into halftime leading 44-27.
The Wildcats came out slow in the second half and the Rams managed to fight their way back to within 13 at the 13:12 mark, but a 3-pointer from Tykei Greene and a big dunk from senior guard Desi Sills, his second rim-rattler of the game, boosted K-State’s lead back out to 18.
"Experience wins," Tang said. "You know that's what it is when you have Markquis, Desi, Tykei and Keyontae, guys who have played for four years in college. That helps you."
Late in the game, Johnson and Rhode Island’s Brandon Weston were both ejected from the game after both received technical fouls.
"I hadn't seen it, so I really can't comment on it," Tang said. "The ref said they both got a tech initially and then they both turned and still faced each other and so he gave them a second can take and ejected them. I'm glad this is not football where have to miss the first half of the next game. But I'll look at it film, see see see what happened."
Weston was one of three Rams in double-figures, finishing the game with 10. Ishmael Leggett had 13 to lead Rhode Island and Brayon Freeman had 11.
K-State widened their lead late on 7-1 run, pushing their advantage to a game-high 24.
The Wildcats will be back at it Tuesday evening when they face fellow undefeated Nevada in the tournament semifinals. The Wolf Pack fought off Tulane 75-66 in their opener earlier on Monday.
"We got to figure out "We know who they are, but we've got to figure out how we can score against them," Tang said. "I think they're like the No. 1 2-point field goal percentage defense in the country and No. 3 3-point field goal percentage defense in the country. So we have to figure out you know how to manipulate them so that we can get good shots."