SAN ANTONIO — Iowa State’s Georges Niang should have been celebrating a rousing 93-75 second-round NCAA tournament East Regional win over North Carolina Central late Friday in the AT&T Center.
And actually, he kind of was.
But the versatile and vital Niang — who scored 24 points, grabbed six rebounds and doled out four assists — knows his season is over, thanks to a broken bone in his right foot.
He talked of trying to play in Sunday’s 4:15 p.m. third-round matchup between the third-seeded Cyclones and sixth-seeded North Carolina.
But he won’t.
Niang’s season is complete — as a player, but not a Cyclone.
That fact set in, finally, by the time the post-game locker room interview with TNT’s Craig Sager was conducted.
“I still have a positive outlook on this season,” said Niang, who hurt his foot midway through the second half but continued to play until the 7:34 mark, unaware of the ultimate severity of the injury. “My role has just changed. I’m going to stay positive. I’ll be here to cheer on my team.”
That ISU team (27-7) torched the nation’s second-best field goal percentage defense Friday, hitting 64 percent of its shots.
That team that advanced to the round of 32 for the third straight season will try to take down former Linn-Mar star Marcus Paige and the long, athletic Tar Heels without Niang — as a player, anyway.
“We’ll miss him,” said Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg, whose team scored 35 points more than the Eagles (28-6) are used to giving up. “But at the same time, I believe in these guys. I believe in the five guys we’ll put on the floor. I believe in the bench guys that will come in and play significant minutes.”
So does Niang, who is as quick with a joke as he is with a spin move and finish.
But North Carolina is North Carolina, and Niang is a bona fide star that facilitates as much as he scores.
“I think we still had a great win, but it’s extremely unfortunate when you have one of your guys go down,” said ISU’s Melvin Ejim, who scored 17 points and secured a game-high eight rebounds. “I definitely feel his pain. It just sucks. There’s nothing you can do about it. But we have faith in our guys, we have faith in our team and we have guys that can step up and are going to have to step up to replace him because he was a big contributor, a big key to our success.”
Niang played that role Friday, as well, scoring seven straight points during a decisive second-half run.
He’s part of the Cyclones’ so-called “big three,” but it’s really a big five.
That’s how many ISU players scored in double figures against Jeremy Ingram-led North Carolina Central, including De Andre Kane (14 points, five assists), Dustin Hogue (15 points), Ejim, and Monte Morris (15 points, four assists).
“I’m happy for my team,” Niang said. “We battled and beat a good North Carolina Central team. I don’t want this to be about me.”
Better or worse, it is.
‘We play through him a ton, obviously,” Hoiberg said. “It’s a blow. There’s no doubt about it, but, again, we’ll have guys step up.”
Scorer, closer, cheerleader, joke cracker — Niang’s as big a reason for the Cyclones’ success as anyone.
Now only the final two options remain as ISU tries to run as deep as the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since reaching the Elite Eight in 2000.
Emotions ran deep as news of Niang’s minimum six weeks recovery time permeated the locker room.
Resolve soon replaced grief as the clock ticked toward midnight.
Ice couldn't remedy the situation.
Only fire could.
“He believes in us, we believe in him,” Naz Long, ISU’s sixth man and Niang’s roommate said. “We’ll be straight.”