NEW YORK -- DeAndre Kane plopped next to Melvin Ejim in a corner of Iowa State’s Madison Square Garden dressing room Friday night and immediately shouldered the blame for the Cyclones’ loss a heartbeat before letting Ejim do likewise.
“Free throws!” Kane moaned loudly, referring to his dismal 2-of-9 night at the line.
“I was 3 of 13 (from the field), relax,” Ejim responded.
“That was the worst we ever shot the ball,” Kane said.
And that’s how it ended, in the same basic cruel and crushing way the NCAA tournament ends for all but one of the 68 participants. All who lose except for the hopelessly overmatched wonder what might have been.
With Iowa State, after its bitter 81-76 Sweet 16 loss to Connecticut, neither senior had the kind of game they produced in abundance in helping their team get to this fabled stage of basketball.
The Cyclones couldn’t shoot straight in the first half, while UConn shot all too well while guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright ran their disciplined offense with savvy.
Ejim, the Big 12’s Player of the Year, looked uncomfortable with his shots almost the entire game, missing 11 of his first 12. Kane had a typically strong box score line with 16 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. But he didn’t look like the player that transformed this team into something dangerous over 35 games until Iowa State mounted a desperate rally that was two possessions short of successful.
Kane was 6 of 18 from the field to go with the ugliness at the line. Meanwhile, the Huskies looked like Garden legend Reggie Miller in making 20 of 22 free throws and barely touching the rim on most. Much like the way they fired in seven 3-pointers in building a 36-26 halftime lead.
“We didn’t make shots,” Ejim said, “and they made shots.”
As analysis goes, that was nothing but net.
Governor Chris Christie was present to watch the game for reasons unclear, maybe because college basketball is slow to reach New Jersey state university Rutgers. Spike Lee was also on hand. He apparently comes to all meaningful basketball games in the Garden, as well as the 41 that involve the Knicks.
But the wide and short of it was, seniors Ejim and Kane weren’t here in their usual manner. They weren’t the commanding presences they were against in ISU’s pulsating victory over North Carolina last Sunday in San Antonio, and Iowa State needed both to be equal to and even a bit more than UConn’s veteran stars.
So be it. Both were basketball dynamos this season. But what made ISU a cut above most of the rest was being a hydra, a three-headed monster that gave each other room to operate and succeed because none could be left unchecked.
The Cyclones were able to coalesce without Georges Niang against Carolina, but you knew they’d be hard-pressed to do it repeatedly. Friday, they sorely missed their hard-to-label, hard-to-guard sophomore forward, who broke his right foot midway through the second half of ISU’s second-round NCAA win over North Carolina Central.
“You never know,” Kane said when asked how this might have ended with Niang in the lineup.
“But I think it would have made a big difference, definitely. ... If we can’t execute out there or get a bucket, you can always count on Georges to make a play for himself or make a play for somebody else. We missed Georges a lot, man.”
Niang said watching the loss from the bench was worse than being on the floor and watching Ohio State’s Aaron Craft eliminate the Cyclones last year with a late 3-pointer.
“As much as I put up a brave front of how positive I was trying to be,” Niang said, “I definitely told myself ‘What if I didn’t break my foot? What if I didn’t try to jump up and block that shot and came down on someone’s foot?’
“But, it happens.”
Yes, it happens. There will be more fun ahead for this program with Niang, with terrific freshman Monte Morris, with big-play Naz Long, and with a senior-to-be in Dustin Hogue who had a sensational 34-point game.Still, a talent like Kane’s and a heart like Ejim’s — and vice versa — don’t come along every year. It’s unfortunate the two didn’t leave without holes in their final statistic line. But sometimes, that happens, too.