LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When Iowa State trailed UAB by three at halftime, the “we’ve got them right where they want them,” comments were unavoidable on Twitter. Even members of the national media were jumping in and making light of the deficit because of the fact that Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones had recently (and successfully) rattled off five straight double-digit second-half comebacks.
All the while, this one felt different. Last week in Kansas City, Iowa State was playing in front of a sold-out and energetic arena that consisted of mostly Cyclone fans. The KFC Yum! Center was not only half full (my estimation), but it lacked energy from the start. If not for the pep bands, pregame warm-ups would have seemed more like a church picnic than a basketball game.
For fans, NCAA Tournaments are overrated. The atmospheres are often lackluster and bland.
Because of this, Iowa State needed to create its own energy; something this team has struggled with all season long.
The Cyclones pulled out to a 12-2 lead over the third-youngest team in college basketball and then proceeded to lose their mind offensively. Nine first-half turnovers allowed the capable Blazers to gain confidence by the minute.
With 15 minutes to play in the first half, Cinderella showed up and after seeing her in person for the first time, let me tell you that this chick is one fickle mistress. Cinderella was pissed.
Cinderella resides in Birmingham, Ala., wears a green jersey and two different colors of shoes.
She outhustled, outrebounded and outplayed the No. 9 team in America.
Oh, and did I mention heartbreak?
“It’s as tough of a loss as I have ever been a part of,” a dejected Hoiberg said after the game. “With what we had going, I thought the momentum we had coming into this tournament, and then to just go out there and not play very well.”
And that’s what makes this game so deflating. It was a worse loss than Hampton 2001, in my opinion. The 2001 Cyclones were trending downward. Who could forget that awful 62-49 loss to Baylor (before Baylor was Baylor) in Kuemper Arena? Just mentioning that game in this column makes me feel the urge to vomit.
But this one?
This one stings especially because a handful of national pundits had the Cyclones going to not only the Final Four but also playing for a national title. Since the NCAA Tournament bracket was released last Sunday, Iowa State has been one of the sexiest and trendiest picks in college basketball.
To throw salt on an already fresh and open wound, more frustration comes with the fact that UCLA, the 11-seed in the South, topped 6-seeded SMU 60-59. That means that Iowa State would have had to go through a 14 and an 11 to play in the Sweet 16 next week in Houston.
Opportunity was knocking on Iowa State’s door.
“This one burns,” said Naz Long. “It burns."
First and foremost, Iowa State got slaughtered on the glass. UAB held a 52-39 advantage over the Cyclones, which was problematic in two major ways.
The obvious is UAB’s 16 second-chance points.
But when Iowa State has made its patented second-half comebacks over the last two weeks, they began on the defensive end. Stops led to transition buckets, which in return led to victories. Let’s all face the fact that the Cyclones are a fairly mediocre half-court offensive team.
“We’d get a stop but just couldn’t get that thing off the board to push it down the court to transition into our offense,” Hoiberg said. “That’s tough. When you get stops and can’t get it off the glass, it’s a tough thing.”
When Iowa State did have opportunities, the Cyclones failed to take advantage.
While a 13-point favorite and 3-seed losing to a 14-seed is always a surprise, it shouldn’t be entirely shocking with this Iowa State team that has lacked overall consistency for the majority of the season.
Where was BDJ?
Bryce Dejean-Jones’ Iowa State career game to an end by playing five minutes and not scoring a point. The UNLV transfer did not play in the second half.
“Just going with the guys I thought were going out there,” Hoiberg said.
As you can imagine, Iowa State’s locker room was gloomy after the game.
Guys like Georges Niang (who uncharacteristically went 4-of-15 from the field) and Naz Long (who was 2-of-9) blamed themselves.
Senior Dustin Hogue was choked up.
Hoiberg was a mess.
“It’s a very emotional time,” Long said. “This is more than a game. You build relationships. You build brotherhood. Some of these seniors are my brothers and I mean that. I really do.”
This is the side of “Cinderella” that is rarely told. Upsets are great. It’s why the NCAA Tournament is the greatest sporting event in the world. Everybody loves the little guy. Underdogs are fun to cheer for.
But the favorites work hard too. They bleed. They cry. They are human beings.
“That’s sports,” Hoiberg said. “That’s life.”
How long will it take The Mayor and his crew to get over this one?
“I don’t know. It’s going to take a while.”
As is usually the case, Fred Hoiberg speaks for all of us.
* This marked Iowa State’s first loss in its opening game of the NCAA Tournament since Hampton in 2000-2001.
* The 59 points that the Cyclones scored were their lowest output of the season. Iowa State led the Big 12 in scoring this season at 79.3 points per game.
* This was the first time that Iowa State lost a game all season when it had the lead with a minute to play.
* Dustin Hogue was held scoreless for the first time this season.