The Sweet 16 on Thursday kicked off in a familiar spot and a new location. Both offered their own viral moments. In Las Vegas, which hosted a regional for the first time, UCLA and Gonzaga played their second NCAA tournament thriller in two years, while UConn made its case that it might be the best team — or the team that’s playing the best right now, at least — in the field with a 23-point win over Arkansas.
At Madison Square Garden, New York-born guard Markquis Nowell led Kansas State to the Elite Eight over Michigan State with one of the greatest individual performances in NCAA tournament history. And a Florida Atlantic team that hasn’t played in the NCAA tournament prior to this season beat Tennessee and the best defense in America to continue to write its own history.
Here are some of the biggest moments from Thursday’s slate and what they might mean for each squad going forward:
Strawther shows off for the home crowd
For years to come, Julian Strawther‘s winning 3-pointer from the March Madness logo in the final seconds of his team’s 79-76 win over UCLA in the Sweet 16 will be replayed whenever anyone mentions this year’s NCAA tournament and its most thrilling moments. But the moment also showcased the confidence within a Gonzaga program that’s ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom. Down 13 points early in the first half, Gonzaga never panicked.
The Bulldogs know they possess offensive firepower that will always allow them to stay in the game. And that’s their greatest weapon going forward. It has been difficult for opponents to stall this Gonzaga offense in the NCAA tournament. Strawther’s deep 3 with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line just means this Gonzaga squad is fearless. — Myron Medcalf
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 24, 2023
The Markquis Nowell Show
It was the iconic moment on a night when Markquis Nowell set a new NCAA tournament record with 19 assists in a single game. In a 92-92 game, in the final minute of overtime, Nowell threw an alley-oop to a cutting Keyontae Johnson, who caught it and finished with a reverse dunk to give Kansas State a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
That would have been enough on its own to be the highlight of the game. But that doesn’t mention Nowell turning to the crowd before the pass and yelling, “Watch this!” It doesn’t mention the debate (real or fake?) Nowell had with coach Jerome Tang about the playcall.
Simply a special sequence. — Jeff Borzello
Cinderella’s run continues
Florida Atlantic was in the midst of turning a six-point deficit into a 10-point lead midway through the second half, making 3s, getting out in transition, finishing at the rim. Tennessee couldn’t score. Rick Barnes tried to stem the tide by calling timeout. Suddenly, “F-A-U!” “F-A-U!” chants rang out through Madison Square Garden. There was a surprisingly strong contingent of FAU fans, but the Kansas State and Michigan State fans who stayed for the second game joined in.
Tennessee fans outnumbering FAU fans in the crowd no longer mattered; the Owls had the momentum, they had the neutral fans and they were going to the Elite Eight.
The magic of March. — Borzello
Leaving them in the dust
This 88-65 UConn win over Arkansas wasn’t much of a game. Arkansas never really had a shot to beat a UConn squad that has been the most dominant force in the NCAA tournament thus far. But Tristen Newton‘s 3 with 11:45 to play in the first half commenced a 16-2 run that created a hole too big for Arkansas to overcome. The rally demonstrated UConn’s ability to steamroll good teams. Both Saint Mary’s and Arkansas were ranked top 15 in adjusted defensive efficiency when they played them and UConn beat them by 15 points and 23 points, respectively.
We haven’t seen an effort this dominant since the 2017-18 Villanova squad beat its first three NCAA tournament opponents by 61 points combined. UConn has defeated its first three opponents by a margin of 62 points combined. — Medcalf