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AMES — On a typical game day, Iowa State’s Georges Niang grabs the keys to his trusty old Volvo, opens the door, straps in, and embarks on a short trip to Hilton Coliseum.
Monday’s matchup with Oklahoma State, of course, was anything but ordinary. Niang would don his No. 31 jersey there for the last time.
That’s real. Final. Jarring.
So Iowa State’s third all-time leading scorer did not take the wheel in advance of the final 40 minutes he’d play at his greatest roundball refuge.
Instead, he hitched a ride with his dad, Sidy. Emotions rippled through his nervous system. Waves of memories whirred through his mind faster than his weathered Volvo could sputter from zero to 35 miles per hour.
“The Volvo, aka, ‘Champagne Papi,’ it takes both of us,” said roommate Naz Mitrou-Long, who joined Niang and fellow seniors Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader in getting teary-eyed during pregame and postgame Senior Night ceremonies after a 58-50 win over the lowly Cowboys. “It always makes the trip. Not tonight. It’s almost at the end of its lifespan.”
Niang’s rise to star status never hinged on sheer horsepower. He’s fueled by heart — a steadfast devotion to repeatedly draining his stockpile of potential, then finding a way to top it off, again and again.
So Niang told fans in a postgame speech that he was “afraid” to finally arrive at Hilton hours before an otherwise workmanlike triumph. He knew he had to say goodbye, but he wished that time would stop and he could linger, as if posing with another 8-year-old admirer for a picture, or signing one of countless basketballs placed in his hands by adoring fans.
“You know what they say in driver’s ed, don’t drive when you’re emotional,” Niang, ever the jokester said after notching his fifth career double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds). “So I got a ride over here. (I was) nervous to know that when that clock hit zero in the last minute of warming up, or whenever we went back, that it was my last time doing that. I just had to get that thought out of my head. But more afraid because I don’t know if I’ll ever experience something as great as I experienced here.
Niang continued: "Realistically, obviously, I go off into real life next year and I’m sure we’ll all be professionals, but just the support and the love — the real love — that I’ve felt here, I was afraid for that to happen one last time. I think I’ve put my all into this place and I’m content with closing a chapter at Hilton because I left everything I had out there.”
The ovations confirmed the veracity of that statement. The 14,384 fans stood often and hollered through their own tears. Quite a chapter, though the full story’s far from finished.
“We’re going to be remembered for a banner that goes right there,” Niang said, pointing toward the rafters, to rousing applause during his speech.
Time will tell. And, of course, it marches on, even as Niang wishes it wouldn’t. Monday’s first-ever postgame senior salute — which first-year coach Steve Prohm instituted — moved the honorees and the honorers in almost equal measure.
“It’s like he’s one of them, literally,” said McKay, who matched Niang with 10 boards. “He gets love everywhere he goes, but he deserves it. He puts in the work to get the love. He didn’t come here as a heralded recruit and he worked his way into All-American. As a fan you have no choice but to respect it because as teammates we all respect it.”
McKay and Nader received well-deserved rounds of applause, too.
“This day was about those three guys,” Prohm said.
Nader scored a game-high 19 points and rose up for a thunderous dunk (and one) over a misguided Mitchell Solomon that won’t soon be forgotten.
But was he worried one of those darn charges would be called? Not on this night.
“If they did, I didn’t care, either,” Nader said with a laugh. “I sat down with (Prohm) the other day and watched film and he was telling me he knows my shots have been falling, but just stay aggressive taking it to the rim because I’m athletic and strong.”
That he is. That they — and you — are. Monday night was rough on Niang and his fellow seniors’ emotional states, but also took its toll on the throng of cardinal and gold that formed yet another sellout crowd.
They didn’t want to leave either, but everything has an end point. Even “Champagne Papi.” Yes, the Volvo that allowed Niang and Mitrou-Long to shift from Cy-Ride to their own ride last season has run its course after 247,000 miles of dutiful service.
A helluva run. A fitting way to finish this chapter.
“Maybe that’s more of the reason I didn’t drive,” Niang said, joking again. “I’ve still got to push it to class, though.”