DAYTON, Ohio – Everyone told Iowa State what it can’t do in general, and what it couldn’t do against Notre Dame.
The Cyclones can’t defend, it was said. They certainly didn’t have a defensive answer for All-Big East Irish center Jack Cooley.
They have to make their living off 3-pointers under normal conditions, so they certainly had to be hot from outside to counter Notre Dame’s power game.
Then on the NCAA tournament stage at the University of Dayton Arena, Iowa State went out and outplayed the Fighting Irish in the paint, and broke its foe’s spirit long before ISU’s 76-58 second-round victory was completed.
The Cyclones played terrific defense, inside and outside. Notre Dame made 14 first-half turnovers to ISU’s three. It looked tentative, out of synch.
“We felt we had some depth and we could wear them down if we did pick them up full-court and stay in for 40 minutes,” Cyclones Coach Fred Hoiberg said.
Cooley and his fellow big men were supposed to kick sand in the Cyclones’ faces. Instead, they played like their electric green shoes were filled with sand.
Iowa State freshman forward Georges Niang mentally put this one in the win column before the first half had ended.
“I looked up at the clock and it was 28-21,” Niang said. “(Chris) Babb had just hit a three. I said to myself ‘We’re going to turn it up right here.’ Because they weren’t really saying much on defense and we had all that energy. So I just couldn’t see us giving that up easily enough for them to take over the game.
“That’s when I knew it was over.”
That sort of sounds crazy, especially since the Cyclones hadn’t been known as great closers away from Hilton Coliseum. But they closed this night. They recognized they were out-quicking, out-hustling, out-savvying and out-and-out outplaying the Irish.
Babb hit another 3-pointer on ISU’s next possession. The Cyclones high-fived each other and played to their fans on the way off the court at halftime. But those two Babb threes were just booster shots. Iowa State won this game on the blocks with good old-fashioned taking the ball to the basket.
“Coach, coming into the game, told us we’d have a mismatch against the bigs,” Niang said, “and they were really closing in on us hard. So that gave us a lane to go by them.
“Their guards weren’t helping much. They were staying to our shooters. So that gave me and Melvin (Ejim) lay-ins to the hoop. Melvin got a couple of dunks, and I got some easy lay-ins, and that got us going.”
The outside shooting the Cyclones had to have to win this game? Well, they did make nine 3-pointers. But those were accessories, not the motor.
Niang and Ejim took the game over. They combined to score ISU’s first 16 points of the second half, and within seven minutes. Ejim with a jam, Ejim with a bank. Niang with a hook. Ejim with three free throws, Niang with a 3-point play. Niang with two lay-ups on set-ups from Ejim.
It was carnage. Niang had 19 points and four assists, Ejim 17 and 5.
“They’re very, very hard to guard,” Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey said. “They’re really good.
“And with Niang in the middle kind of wheeling and all those guys spreading you out, they’re kind of a nightmare matchup.
“They’re just really good, and they’re men. They’re really men.”
Five of the eight players in ISU’s rotation are seniors. But freshman Niang lighted the path for his team early in this game. His first shot was a jump-hook that was all net. His next two baskets were also on hooks, old-school from a young guy.
“This guy has every post move you could ever think of,” said Ejim. “I don’t have as many, but I have some.”
“We saw some things on film where we thought we could get some things accomplished in the paint,” Hoiberg said. “We went to Georges early in there, and he made some great moves. I thought he really took his time. For a freshman to do that …
“I remember my first game as a freshman in the NCAA tournament in Worcester, Massachusetts. I could hardly run up and down the floor, I was so nervous.”
But Niang, who averages 12.2 points, is an uncommon rookie.
“He’s such a great finisher,” said Hoiberg. “Not only does he go out and finish well, he tells them about it on the way down the court.
“He’s gotten a couple technical this year by doing that, but that’s who he is. That’s what gets him going.”
If it sounds punk-ish, well, that’s in the eye of the beholder. But if you watch this kid play, you’d have to admit his game is pretty mature for his years.
Niang prepped at Tilton School, a New Hampshire prep school that brings in students from all over the country and overseas. Niang was a teammate to three other future Division I players, including Kentucky phenom big man Nerlens Noel, who some project as the possible No. 1 player in this year’s NBA draft even though he tore a knee ligament in midseason.
“The kid’s playing with a chip on his shoulder,” Hoiberg said. “He’s been so underappreciated, I think, under-valued really, his entire life.
“Playing with all those great McDonald’s All-American players and not getting the recognition he deserves … he’s showing the world who he is right now.”
Niang did get plenty of honors as a prep, though, and says he didn’t feel shorted in that regard. Iowa, Providence and Seton Hall knew who he was and recruited him to be in their programs.
But he has rabbit ears when it comes to detecting slights, perceived or real.
“I think I just had a chip on my shoulder my whole life from being doubted,” he said. “Again, I heard comments, me being doubted. I couldn’t handle Cooley, this and that and the other. That motivates you at some point.”
Niang said he used to watch NCAA tourney games in his basement at home with a friend, and fantasize about playing in the big tournament.
“I couldn’t imagine being out there,” he said. But then he got here. And?
“I’m never satisfied just being somewhere.”
Which is a reason why Iowa State is still in the NCAAs, and will face Ohio State Sunday at 11:15 a.m., Central time. Just like last year, the Cyclones weren’t satisfied just being here.
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