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Basketball

ISU’s three-peat dreams dashed by Oklahoma

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KANSASCITYGeorges Niang sat back, a towel draped across his head and shoulders, forced to watch the final 31 seconds of Thursday’s bitter 79-76 Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal loss to Oklahoma.

 A heroic effort ended with Niang rendered helpless — unable to contribute more after tying a carer high with 31 points and hoisting his Iowa State teammates on his back as a rally from 14 points down narrowly fell short.

 “It’s a horrible feeling,” said Niang, who scored 14 of his 25 second-half points in one almost game-saving spurt. “It stings. I think the worst part is being a senior. This is it.”

 No third straight championship run. An epic duel between Niang and the Sooners’ Buddy Hield (39 points) that ended. Raw emotions rippling through every Cyclone — whether in uniform or not.

 As Niang counted down toward a heartfelt, but bitter hug with the victorious Hield, roommate and street clothes-clad friend, Naz MitrouLong, bowed his head and folded his hands. The pain was real, but the resolve beneath it remains — and will again be on display when ISU (21-11) prepares for a Thursday or Friday NCAA Tournament opener as (probably) a No. 5 seed.

“So many emotions are running through your mind as the clock’s going down and you have to accept a loss,” said Mitrou-Long, who has been an extra coach since shutting down his season in December because of a less-than-full than recovery from double hip surgery. “That’s one of the hardest things in life, period, just to accept a loss. But I just told Georges he played a hell of a game He led us the whole way. I just told him, ‘You’re special.’ And me personally, I just wish I could be able to compete, man. I just wish that I could be out there I pray every night. It’s tough. It’s tough that I can’t. It stings, but it’s OK.”

 A deep run remains eminently possible. Another early exit could occur, too. In this seismic season rocked by seven top-50 RPI wins and fractured by several draining losses endured in the final minutes or seconds, the answer “anything can happen” becomes the natural, go-to phrase.

 Call it a shrug, which is more than Cyclone point guard Monté Morris could do after playing through still-severe right shoulder pain stemming tom an injury in the regular season-closing loss at top-ranked Kansas.

 Morris shot 1 for 9 from the field and doled out two assists. The pain is real for him, too, but compounded by the confounding nature of his recovery.

 “Not good,” Morris said. “But it’s gotta get better.”

 So do the Cyclones. Hield sank 14 of 21 from the field and helped Oklahoma (24-6) build a 14-point second-half lead. By the time Niang went on his 14-point personal spree and Abdel Nader sprinkled in two clutch 3-pointers, Heild had scored 35 points.

 He, like Niang, was simply unstoppable.

 “The last two minutes I would say we locked in and made some stops,” Morris said. “But throughout the game they owned us. They broke us down. We didn’t make it tough on Buddy. We let Buddy be comfortable and that’s the result. I feel like we didn’t play tough enough to win that game.”

 Turnovers also doomed ISU. The Cyclones coughed up 18 — eight more than the Sooners. Some were iffy travel calls. More were careless, the types of plays that can’t happen if the most important tournament is to end better than this one.

 Oklahoma scored 17 points off turnovers to ISU’s 10 — pretty much the margin of the Sooners’ victory, even though Deonte Burton swished a buzzer-beating 3 from 35 feet.

“I hate seeing these guys like this,” ISU coach Steve Prohm said. “They’ve done a tremendous job for me all year, staying the course, saying the right things, doing the right things. They’ve had some good things happen this year, when you look at some great wins that we’ve had, but in these tournament settings going forward, I want to see them have a lot of things to celebrate and we’ve still got that chance. This was just a tough loss. These guys expected to win.”

 Still do. 

 When Niang drove the lane and dropped a pass to Nader for a 3-pointer that could have pulled ISU within one with 42 seconds left, he felt certain the comeback would ultimately succeed.

 Nader had just drilled a step back 3-pointer and the Cyclones followed that with a stop. This time, though, Nader’s shot curled halfway down then sprang back out.

 “I was really convinced he was going to hit another one and that doesn’t discourage me from going back to him again,” Niang said. “It was the right play. I have full confidence that he’s going to knock it in the next time I pass it to him.”

 Didn’t happen Thursday. Might go down next week. Cue the madness, which can turn sour spirits into basketball bliss in the blink of an eye — and vice versa.

 “I’m not a moral victory type of guy,” Niang said. “We have some work to do to make a push in the NCAA Tournament and I think we’re going to go home and work on those things.”

R

Rob Gray

administrator

Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.

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