Jerome Tang refused to let K-State players mope after Elite Eight loss to FAU. Here’s why

In the moments after Kansas State’s excruciating 79-76 loss to Florida Atlantic in an Elite Eight game on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, coach Jerome Tang posted up in the hallway leading to the K-State locker room.

Then he waited and greeted every crestfallen member of the Wildcat entourage with a hand slap and a “Head up!” directive.

Once inside, he promptly elaborated on the idea as he addressed the captivating team that had fallen just short of the school’s first Final Four since 1964.

“He said if this is the worst thing that we have to go through, then our life will be pretty damned good,” said Markquis Nowell, the spellbinding Most Outstanding Player of the East Regional, as he mustered a smile in the largely hushed room.

He added: “There’s some people really going through some hard things in life, and I just lost a basketball game.”

Over the next few minutes, Tang would enter the Florida Atlantic locker room to congratulate coaches and players and urge them forward.

And after his typical postgame opening to thank “my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ,” he instantly offered the same conciliatory perspective to a broader audience.

“If we can’t be grateful in these times, then all the love and joy that we talk about is fraud,” he said. “And we’re not frauds.”

Not frauds in the sense of how he walks the talk. And certainly not frauds on the court.

Tang’s first K-State team, fused together with Nowell, Ish Massoud and 11 new scholarship players, won more games than the Wildcats had won the last two seasons combined (26 vs. 23) as he essentially revived a sagging program.

His grasp of how to do that bodes well for K-State’s future … even with Nowell’s eligibility expired and Keyontae Johnson almost certainly heading to the NBA.

And his grasp of how to meet this moment was even more compelling testimony about what should make the future bright.

Not just in the sense of why he should appeal to recruits, but also in terms of why K-State fans should feel proud to have him as the leader of the program.

When I asked him why it was so important to immediately embrace the bigger picture, here’s what he said:

“This is the third time I’ve lost in the Elite Eight,” he said, alluding to previous losses as a Baylor assistant coach. “And you can sit around and mope and cry about it, or you can really think about the love and the joy that you’ve had through the season.

“And winners keep their heads up. They don’t drop their heads. So our guys were not going to walk off the floor with their heads down. … Tough things are going to happen in our life, and we don’t get to wallow in it. We’ve got to keep moving forward. This is more of a lesson for them of becoming men than it is about basketball.”

Don’t misunderstand. The loss was painful to all. As it should be.

When Nae’Qwan Tomlin was asked during the postgame news conference to express the disappointment of coming so close to the Final Four only to not make it, Tang, Nowell and Tomlin conferred away from the mic before Nowell answered.

“He can’t express it,” Nowell said.

Credit Nowell with yet another assist to go with his NCAA Tournament-record 19 against Michigan State and 12 more on Saturday along with 30 points.

If only he could have generated just one more at game’s end after FAU’s Michael Forrest made two free throws with 6.9 seconds left to give the Owls a three-point lead. Or have hit his sixth 3-pointer of the game.

Alas, though, something got jumbled on a final play that Tang said he was disappointed in himself for not better orchestrating.

As Nowell described it: “Coach wanted Ish to set the screen, and I waved it off because I felt like on the right side of the court that’s where Ish hits most of his shots. And they closed out hard on him, and he didn’t get off his shot.”

It made for an abrupt and hollow ending to a beautiful run this season. And maybe it was all the more piercing because only minutes before it seemed to be falling K-State’s way.

Despite being absurdly outrebounded (44-22 by the end) and Johnson playing just over 18 minutes before fouling out.

When Nowell banked in a three that was so improbable he was practically laughing as he ran back down the court, K-State led 63-57 with 8:39 to go.

“I (felt) like that shot gave us a little momentum,” he said.

Instead, it was a jumping-off point for Florida Atlantic, which unleashed a 15-1 run. In fact, K-State didn’t make another basket for nearly seven minutes but gritted up and managed to cut it to 75-74 on Cam Carter’s three-pointer with 22 seconds left.

The comeback wasn’t to be, though, with Nowell pointing out that it all came down to K-State struggling to get vital defensive stops and that Florida Atlantic seemed to get “every single 50-50 ball.”

At his locker later, Nowell said, “There’s a bunch of coulda, woulda … running through my mind.”

But also plenty of pride after the Harlem native became a national sensation over the last few days after performances that he said led to the “surreal” feeling of hearing from the likes of Magic Johnson, Carmelo Anthony, Ja Morant, Trae Young and Muggsy Bogues.

At the heart of that pride, though, was the knowledge that anything he had done — or even wished he’d done otherwise — still was part of something bigger than himself to be cherished forever.

Something radiated by the charismatic Tang.

“This hurts right now, but I wouldn’t trade these guys for 10 players, 10 others, or 20 others,” Tang said. “I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.”

Just like K-State fans shouldn’t want to trade him for anything.