Shane Southwell was one of 19,624 mesmerized spectators in the Garden on Thursday night, and he found himself getting emotional watching the Markquis Nowell show.
Yes, Southwell was rooting for his alma mater, Kansas State, but it went much deeper than that.
An associate head coach at Northern Illinois and a rising star in the industry at only 31 years of age, Southwell grew up in Harlem, as Nowell did.
The two got to know each other years ago, meeting one day at Gauchos Gym through a mutual friend, former Kentucky star Doron Lamb.
“Nobody deserves it more. He’s a special young man,” Southwell told The Post, reflecting on Nowell’s play Thursday night, when he set an NCAA Tournament record with 19 assists in third-seeded Kansas State’s dramatic overtime victory over Michigan State in the Sweet 16, despite a mild right ankle sprain. “There were definitely moments [Thursday night] that I wanted to cry just because of how special everything was going, because of how he was playing.”
Southwell was responsible for Nowell finding his way to Kansas State after he left Arkansas Little-Rock.
Southwell was an assistant coach with the Wildcats when Nowell went into the portal and he convinced Bruce Weber, then the head coach, they should be all-in on the diminutive guard.
The Big 12 school was one of just a few high-major programs involved with the 5-foot-8 Nowell.
His height scared others off.
Not Weber, who had played small lineups throughout his career.
“I genuinely believe he was overlooked because of his size, and people also didn’t necessarily know the kid and what he had in him and all the different intangibles he had to make himself successful,” Southwell said. “He was getting better over time. He’s even improved a lot over the past year.
“He was always known as a big-time scorer even back in his days at Bishop Loughlin [High School], a miniature guard that could get in the lane and create for everyone else. People didn’t understand the heart of a champion he has.”
At the end of Nowell’s first season at Kansas State, Weber resigned as head coach.
During the coaching search, Nowell’s brother, Marcus Jr., grew enamored with Jerome Tang, a top assistant at Baylor.
Players gravitated toward Tang, who was instrumental in the Bears winning the national title two years ago.
Marcus told his brother that Tang was the coach they should push for.
Nowell reached out to athletic director Gene Taylor, championing Tang and telling him he planned to stay and keep the roster together.
Taylor responded with a muscle emoji, signaling he agreed with Nowell.
Baylor ultimately hired Tang, who has the Wildcats one win away from their first Final Four since 1964.
“Knowing that, just that kind of buy-in and that kind of belief, it was just incredible,” Tang said Friday on the eve of the Elite Eight matchup against No. 9 Florida Atlantic. “It really wasn’t anything that I did. It was just this kid, this young man. He’s just incredible.”
Tang was already a fan of Nowell, from facing him at Baylor. Shortly after Kansas State hired him, Tang promised Nowell’s father, Marcus Sr., “I’m going to live and die with Markquis Nowell.”
Nowell felt the same way about Tang, and showed it with his actions.
He and his brother were in the ear of Keyontae Johnson to transfer from Florida to Kansas State, convincing him Tang would make the most out of his final year of eligibility.
They didn’t push him, but they made him feel welcome and laid out why Kansas State would work for him.
Johnson is the Wildcats’ leading scorer and rebounder.
“The Little Apple is called the happiest place on earth,” Nowell said of Manhattan, Kan. “Coach Tang will take care of you, he’ll love you and you’ll get better on your game. If you’re a true baller, that’s what you want to hear.”
Nowell has been a big part of this memorable season for the Wildcats on the floor, posting career-highs in assists (8.1) and steals (2.5) while averaging 17.2 points per game.
In three tournament games, Nowell has produced 21.3 points, a whopping 14 assists and is shooting 47.7 percent from the field while playing 120 of a possible 125 minutes.
His father described watching his son’s performance at the Garden as an “out-of-body experience.”
He found himself thinking back to all his son had to overcome, mostly due to his height.
He never let those doubts get to him, determined to work harder to make his dream come true.
“He’s completely proving his doubters wrong,” the elder Nowell said. “Through his whole life, he’s been trying to prove he belongs. This is nothing to him. He still wants more. I just got off the phone with him. He said, ‘They haven’t seen [my best].’ ”
It has been a whirlwind few days for Nowell, who returned home for the East Region semifinals with that record-setting performance in his first time playing on the Garden floor.
His phone has blown up as he has heard from the likes of Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young and mentor Carmelo Anthony.
Two famous Michigan State alums, Isiah Thomas and Mateen Cleaves, with whom Nowell exchanged playful trash talk during the game, also sent him messages.
“I haven’t gotten a chance to respond to everybody,” he said.
There is more work to do. Nowell’s right ankle is a bit sore, but he expects to be at 85-90 percent for the game. Even if it were worse, it wouldn’t matter.
“This is March Madness. This is where the greats are made,” Nowell said. “The toughest people and the toughest teams are going to win.”