KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim grabbed a pair of scissors, then ascended the ladder, eyes locked just below the rim, on threaded, soon-to-be mangled braids of nylon.
A big climb?
But nothing like the one he and the No. 16 and recently-crowned Big 12 Tournament champion Cyclones (26-7) had just completed thanks to a cold-to-start, hot-to-finish 74-65 triumph over seventh-seeded Baylor Saturday before an overwhelmingly pro-ISU crowd at the Sprint Center.
“We could run them out of the gym,” Ejim said moments after the Cyclones had earned their second Big 12 tournament championship — and first since 2000. “We could play our type of basketball and once we started doing that, once we started rebounding and getting the looks that we wanted and knocking down shots we were able to open up the game and take the lead.”
It was an agony and ecstasy-filled win for ISU, which missed its first 13 field goal attempts against Baylor’s intricate zone defense, but found itself on the glass and, eventually, behind the 3-point line.
The balanced Cyclones — led by DeAndre Kane’s 17 points — also misfired on its first six long distance shots, but hit eight of the next nine, including two each from Naz Long and Melvin Ejim in the final 6:33.
ISU shot 70 percent from the field in the second half and outrebounded the taller Bears (24-11) 38 to 28 while overcoming a double-digit deficit to win for the eighth time this season.
“We knew that as soon as somebody hit one shot that lid would come off,” said Kane, who was named the tournament MVP.
Cue Long, whose first 3 in the game-sealing sequence tied the score, 50-50.
“That’s what I’m here for, to knock down shots,” said Long, who was 7 of 10 from long-range in the tournament.
Ejim’s swish came next, giving ISU its first lead at 53-50 with 5:48 left.
The Cyclones trailed briefly once after that but closed the game on a 15-7 run — and celebrated to the loud cheers of ISU fans who formed the vast majority of the crowd of 19,108.
“It had to be at least 16,000 of the (19,108) cheering and pulling for you,” ISU Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “That was definitely a huge factor, I think, in the game.”
That’s the championship game — one that took 14 years to reach since the last title was earned.
That’s a destination as well as a way-station.
“I come into this program and they didn’t even make any tournament,” said the Cyclones’ Georges Niang, who added 13 points and nine rebounds. “Now we’re here showing people we can win the Big 12 tournament — arguably the best conference in the country. I’m just ecstatic right now.”
ISU’s next step?
Finding out their seed and early-round destination for the NCAA Tournament, which will be announced live at 5 p.m. today on CBS.
Ejim, who had 10 points, also became also his program’s second all-time leading rebounder, grabbing nine boards to move past Zaid Abdul-Aziz (1,025 rebonds, 1966-68).
He needed only four boards to pass Abdul-Aziz — and collected that many in the first four minutes as ISU established an edge on the glass that would translate to commanding 38 to 28 edge when the streamers fell from the rafters.
“Guys stepped up,” Ejim said.
Today, they’ll step out to Hoiberg’s house.
They’ll gather to not sweat out whether they’ll be in the NCAA Tournament, but to see how high — a 3, maybe even a 2? — their seed will be.“We knew what was at stake and I think we did our best job of preparing ourselves and putting ourselves in a great position and now we’re reaping the benefits,” Ejim said. “So we’re excited to see it. We’re excited to see how it goes and hopefully we’ll get a great seed.”