KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Four hours before Iowa State took the court to snatch its first conference tournament championship since 2000, the Sprint Center breathed slow and steady. Mostly a cavern of darkness, lights popped in different places, the neon orange-red behind the backboard, the projected logos of each of the Big 12's 10 teams hovered in white above the southeast stands. The scoreboard hummed. Workers milled about, stapling the black parchment to press row, making everything looked tight and proper. In the sky-high suites, the TVs were on loud enough to hear the whistles of the Duke-N.C. State game courtside.
By 7 p.m., the pace picked up, cardinal-clad Iowa State fans leaving their beers at the Power & Light district and turning the Sprint Center into Hilton South (and just a little to the west). By the time Dustin Hogue met Baylor's Isaiah Austin in the middle of center court for the opening tip, the place was thundering.
If Iowa State's first two wins of the conference tourney married beautiful basketball with brawn, then this one — 74-65 — was a bumbling choreography of misadventure with an outstanding closing act. The Cyclones struggled to crack BU's 2-3 zone, clanking three-pointers and misfiring entry passes early. Baylor missed bunnies. The first half was miserable, the second half tremendous and at the end Fred Hoiberg got to pump his fist, just like Johnny, because the Cyclones were just a little bit better, a 4-0 run in the closing moments cinching it, allowing a patient crowd to finally exhale while DeAndre Kane lifted his shirt up over his head, stomped his feet and swung his arms, three years of pent-up frustration released.
"That was emotional," Hoiberg said afterward on the floor.
Kane, Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim were named to the All-Tournament team, along with Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Baylor's Isaiah Austin. Kane was named Most Outstanding Player.
Said Naz Long, who hit four three-pointers: "We stayed confident, we believed in each other, we just had to pull it through."
The Big 12 discourse has been not that it boasts a handful of Final Four hopefuls, but that, from top to almost-bottom, it is the toughest conference in the league. Overall, the quality of games did not back that up — there were four classics, including this one, the others duds — but the fact that No. 7 Baylor and No. 4 Iowa State made it to the final to nobody's total surprise did.
"I think it's wide-open," Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg said before the tourney began. "It's gonna be, I think, as exciting a Big 12 tournament as there's ever been."
On their way to cutting down the nets and clinching a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Cyclones played their way into the free-thinker's office-pool Final Four because they proved they can match up with anyone: Grit-and-grind Kansas State (No. 233 nationally in adjusted tempo), mighty Kansas and Baylor, a lengthy, sweet-shooting team with a 2-3 zone defense that has given Iowa State problems.
Iowa State has been served a nice helping of adversity in recent years against Kansas, but recapping the all the unlucky bounces and tough calls would not help the Cyclones' inferiority complex to the Jayhawks. To finally beat them after five consecutive losses, it might have meant more than surviving another day in the Big 12 tourney.
"It's a great win for us," Hoiberg said after the 94-83 exorcism, "for the fact that it gives us confidence that we can compete with anybody in the nation."
When the Cyclones have four of five starters averaging double figures in one tournament, yes, they can. Melvin Ejim (21.5 the first two games), Georges Niang (21.5), Hogue (15.5) and point guard DeAndre Kane (15.5) carried ISU at different points during the run, most notably Niang's string of four consecutive buckets in the second half against KU, when he effectively treated Perry Ellis like a 5-footer, a variety of post moves working at will on the 6-foot-8 Ellis.
This season Iowa State has won a school record eight games against AP Top 25 teams, going 8-2 overall (both losses to Kansas). Easy with an offense like that, scoring around 83 points per game with an adjusted efficiency ranking No. 17 nationally.
However, the Baylor game, or at least most of it, was a lesson in offensive inefficiency, the Cyclones starting 0-for-13 from the field, simply unable to penetrate Baylor's suffocating 2-3 zone defense. The Bears allowed only long three-pointers and if there was a crevice open, they closed it off quickly, swiping their hands at entry passes, forcing six turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
Luckily for the Cyclones, Baylor wasn't much better, a silky period from Brady Heslip notwithstanding. The Bears closed the half shooting 34.5 percent. Had Iowa State been on its A-Game, it might have turned the misses into transition opportunities, but the Cyclones were slow to the races while coach Scott Drew had his team pack the paint on fast breaks.
Swarm to the hoop they did, and on one play — one very big play — they crowded too deep. Kane got to the perimeter arc on the right wing, right where he drilled the three-pointer over Kansas' Ellis on Friday, and rose up. The ball found the bottom of the net, the crowd found something to cheer about, the Cyclones found their momentum. Two series later, Morris drained a long three-pointer and then Niang got to work, scoring inside on consecutive possessions. Baylor's Kenny Chery converted three free throws to pad Baylor's lead to 32-27 at halftime, which ISU gladly took.
Iowa State played with more aggression to begin the second half as Kane, Niang and Morris either got to the foul line or scored in the post, but the Bears matched the first 10 minutes. The dam began to crack thanks to six consecutive points — an Ejim layup in traffic, a useful Matt Thomas runner, a Kane bucket in transition — before it burst with a no-no-no-YES tying three-pointer in the right corner courtesy of Long and an Ejim three at the top of the key. The first tie since 0-0, the first lead since never.
Baylor hung tough, reclaiming the lead on an Austin jumper and then on a Heslip three-pointer. Long retorted, nailing a deep three from the left wing for a 59-58 lead with less than four minutes remaining. Ejim hit a three, then another. Hogue converted an up-and-under, Niang cooly made two free throws, and all of the sudden there was 1:17 left and the Cyclones up six.
It was all they needed, a round of free throws and crucial rebounding sealing the deal.
Later on Sunday afternoon, Iowa State will gather at Hoiberg's Ames manor and learn its NCAA tourney draw. The memory of this Big 12 title will survive on pictures of Hoiberg whipping the net above his head and Kane flying into Long's arms at the final buzzer, but it won't matter much, at least in the short-term. Hoiberg and his staff will pull game tape of the first opponent while eying the Round of 32 matchup and the team will be on a flight early in the week to San Antonio, Spokane, or wherever.
Their snipped-nets souvenir won't be enough to get them to the Sweet Sixteen or the Elite Eight, but this short time in Kansas City — from Wednesday's practice to Saturday's ladder-climb — injected the Cyclones with an immediate, heavy dose of self-assurance, an awfully good thing to have in March.