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Basketball

BLUM: Opportunity of a generation

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I still remember it like it was yesterday: March 20, 1997. The 6th seeded Cyclones had made the Sweet 16 for the first time in my cognitive lifetime. The Cyclones’ opponent: UCLA, a storied, basketball royalty and a team that had won a national title two years prior.

I was 12 years old and Cyclone Basketball was my life. My Cyclones were on a stage I had never witnessed before and were two games away from the Final Four. It was awesome.

The Cyclones and Bruins were the nightcap on CBS on this Thursday night before I even knew what a nightcap was. The Minnesota-Clemson game had gone into double overtime so Iowa State and UCLA didn’t tip until well after 9 p.m. Iowa time and there was school the next day. My dad didn’t even try to challenge the normal bed time protocol; he knew what was more important. And deep down, he probably wondered if the Cyclones would make it back to this same stage at any point soon. After all, it had been 11 years since Iowa State’s last Sweet 16 appearance and the Cyclones were going to be rebuilding the next season. These opportunities didn’t come around very often for the non blue-bloods.

And so my brothers and I stayed up and watched Dedric Willoughby try and bury the Bruins. Willoughby hit big three after big three and helped Iowa State to a 16-point second-half lead. I was elated and running around the living room mimicking Willoughby’s text-book form. The Cyclones, my Cyclones, seemed to be on their way to a place they had never been. Maybe this would be the start of something special? My dad said if the Cyclones make the Final Four we would be road-tripping to Indianapolis. It was so close, I already saw myself in the RCA Dome.

UCLA started making shots and Iowa State kept turning the ball over and a 16-point lead was six in the span of two minutes. The lead continued to evaporate and with seven minutes remaining, UCLA took their first lead of the game. The squads exchanged scores and free throws down the stretch, a Willoughby three with 20 seconds left sent the game to overtime.

In overtime, Shawn Bankhead’s lay-up put Iowa State up one with seven seconds remaining.

And then it happened….  

Cameron Dollar took the ball, dribbled the length of the floor, discarded Jacy Holloway on a drive and tossed up a high-arching shot; Cyclone shot-blocking machine Kelvin Cato jumped to challenge, his Stretch Armstrong frame extending to the ceiling to block it. The ball sailed just over Cato’s fingertips, bounced off the glass and into the net. UCLA 74 Iowa State 73.

That moment was crushing. I had seen Iowa State play in the Sweet 16 for the first time in my life and it was over. I was devastated and wondered if my Cyclones would ever make it back.   

Thankfully, Iowa State’s next trip to the Sweet 16 came just three years later and this time they pummeled UCLA. But that promising season in 2000 also ended in heartbreak. The pain of losing only amplifies the closer the prize.

In the 16 years since 2000, Iowa State has been to one Sweet 16. Two years ago, Fred Hoiberg’s squad knew they had an uphill battle ahead without Georges Niang and his broken foot. Even if the Cyclones got by UConn, destiny was likely not going to be on their side without No. 31 available for the rest of the tournament. Iowa State battled, but came up short. Yet there was optimism after that loss because the Cyclone core would be back.

The Cyclones are back with an opportunity of a generation.  

This soap opera of a season has built to a moment few Cyclones teams have ever experienced.  Sixteen teams remain and Iowa State is playing as good of basketball as anybody in the tournament. The Cyclones aren’t a hope and a prayer from making the Final Four.  This team is far better than that, the pieces are all there and Niang is healthy and better than ever. They are a legitimate threat to get to a place we all have dreamt about.

It hasn’t been an easy road for this club, but that’s fitting for Iowa State. Nothing comes easy for the Cyclones, it’s part of the DNA of an Iowa Stater. If you wanted something to come easy, you would’ve stopped being an Iowa State fan long ago.

This team has been through the ringer of sky-high expectations and frustrating finishes, but they fought to get to this place. And Cyclone Nation is right behind them. Now is the time for the next step.

This group has an opportunity to do something no other Iowa State team has done. This time the opponent doesn’t have a home-court advantage.

It all sets up for a memorable weekend, one way or another. The Cyclones are back in the Sweet 16. 

Somewhere in Iowa on Friday night, there will be a 12-year-old Cyclone intently watching the game on CBS with his dad hoping his Cyclones get to a stage he’s never seen before. 

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