KANSAS CITY, Mo — Georges Niang said it would be a bar fight, but this was more refined than that. No clumsy swings, no flying stools, no snapped-in-half pool sticks.
If Iowa State's game Thursday against Kansas State was indeed physical warfare, it was more like a prize fight at MGM Grand, Don King chomping a stogie ringside. It was physical, with frequent fouls, but there was a savage beauty to it. The basketball was intense, yes, but smooth. Not sloppy and bumbling. Each possession mattered more than any other had all year. And in the end, Iowa State was just good enough — 91-85 good enough — that head coach Fred Hoiberg could sit on press row afterward and scout the Kansas-Oklahoma State game, scribbling notes on the back of the box score, black ink on green paper.
"Couldn't be more proud of these guys for how we handled some pretty tough situations out there," Hoiberg said.
Like senior point guard DeAndre Kane fouling out. Like Georges Niang playing with four in crunch time. Like Melvin Ejim starting out 0-for-6.
The usual suspects came along when they needed to, Niang the offensive fulcrum down the stretch (four points, three assists in the final 3:37), Ejim coming up with bucket after bucket after bucket (24 points, 10 rebounds). But until they did, Iowa State was left dependent on Dustin Hogue, Naz Long and Monté Morris, three role players who showed Thursday they can carry a team.
Hogue, the junior forward, scored 14 points in the second half and fought for five rebounds. His stepback jumper with 7:06 left in the half — Hogue drove to his left, picked up his dribble and levitated further to the left, releasing the ball nearly behind the backboard — tied the game at 70-all.
The circus shot, from Hogue of all people, gave the Cyclones the spark of confidence they needed.
By that point, the reinforcements were back, Kane converting an and-one layup, Niang hitting a baby-hook and Long drilling a three-pointer from the top of the key (81-78).
With the Cyclones holding onto an 87-85 lead, Kansas State's Shane Southwell corralled the basketball and sprinted toward the KSU basket, where a crowd of Cyclones waited. Rather than hold for the last shot, Southwell made a motion — part-shot, part-pass — and coughed up the basketball. Hogue caught it at its highest point and Iowa State managed to kill nine seconds before Kansas State fouled Long.
"I just had tunnel vision," Southwell said. "So I had predetermined thoughts, so it wasn't going to work out. If I would have just been a little bit more patient, it probably would have worked out."
Kane playing 13 minutes in the second half, Morris was tasked with running ISU's offense. As usual, the results were spectacular: five points, including a three-pointer, 10 assists, one turnover, to keep the freshman point guard on track to break the NCAA's record for assist-to-turnover ratio (5.71).
Morris starred at the defensive end as well, prying at dribbles and poking away passes, to finish with three steals.
"He's always does the right thing defensively," Hoiberg said of Morris.
Sitting at his locker, Morris said the grind of the Big 12, in which every team plays twice, has given him the eyes in the back of his head.
"When you play guys twice, you really just know what kind of stuffs coming and what calls they're running and everything," Morris said. "I've got good memory so I remembered plays and where I could be. I was trusting that."
As for that bar fight? Niang told reporters afterward he felt like he had just stepped out of a "steel cage match."
So, not quite the MGM Grand. Maybe Friday's semifinals.