SAN ANTONIO -- They were playing so well. He was playing so well.
Iowa State sophomore forward Georges Niang had 24 points and his Cyclones were an offensive whirlwind in their 93-75 NCAA tournament second-round win over North Carolina Central.
But that's when Niang left the game. He had hurt himself at about the 9-minute mark of the second half, and took himself out of the game with 7:34 remaining.
"I landed on someone's foot," Niang said in the ISU dressing room in AT&T Center, with a bag of ice on his own right foot. It had a broken fifth metatarsal, which in layman's terms means he's done with basketball until next season.
Niang made four of his five 3-pointers, and was 9-of-14 overall in Iowa State's blistering 63.6 percent shooting performance. It was the second-straight year he dominated an opponent in an NCAA opener, having taken Notre Dame apart last year in a rout of the Irish.
"It's a hard pill to swallow, that's for sure," Niang said, though he put on as brave a face as he could in the painful moment.
"I'll be the loudest cheerleader we have if that's what it comes down to," Niang said.
"I wouldn't ever give up on my team or anything. I still believe in them 120 percent."
But the reality is clear. Iowa State looked as potent as any squad in the nation over the last eight days, with victories over NCAA teams Kansas State, Kansas, Baylor, and now a North Carolina Central team that had a 20-game winning streak snapped and turned into twigs by the Cyclones. Now, it's a team with a short player-rotation that just got a lot shorter, at least in terms of stellar, proven players.
Niang's outside shot has never looked smoother and more confident than it did Friday night, and his vast array of moves were something the Eagles had never encountered in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Niang averages 16.5 points and 3.6 assists, and how do you replace that in less than two days to beat a foe as formidable as North Carolina, ISU's Sunday afternoon opponent?
"He's one of our leaders," Iowa State Coach Fred Hoiberg said. "With our two seniors, Melvin (Ejim) and DeAndre (Kane), George is right there with them. He's as big a piece of this team as we have playing on this team, obviously. It's a blow.
"He's a guy who creates so many mismatches out there on the floor."
Were this a team that would have been hard-pressed to beat North Carolina as it was, were this a team that had gone as deep into the NCAAs as anyone had reason to expect, this injury might be a little easier to accept. But Hoiberg, who certainly isn't given to hyperbole, said "We're playing as well as any team in the country right now and one of our main cogs is out for the rest of the tournament. We'll see what we're made of."
Few players at this level lack confidence. Kane said "We've got Daniel Edozie, Percy Gibson, Sherron (Dorsey-Walker), Matt Thomas, guys that have got to step up and be ready to play. I think they're guys who will be ready to play.
"It's a big loss to us, but it's a team sport, not a one-man sport."
"I've got faith in our guys, this team," Ejim said. "It sucks. It's definitely a damper. But now we have a game Sunday we have to prepare for."
Hoiberg and his coaches have quite a job ahead of them between now and Sunday afternoon, let alone the two hours of the game against North Carolina.
"I believe in these guys so much. It's a complete team effort with what we've done this season, and allowed them to be successful. Yeah, one of the guys that we played through is going to be out, but somebody will step in there and play well. I'm confident of that."
But the coach said a mouthful when he noted "Adversity hit us tonight. Hit us hard."