SAN ANTONIO – Fred Hoiberg had one word of advice for his team.
Sensing his team tightening down the stretch, the Iowa State coach tried to loosen the vibe with a simple message. Then, with the game tied at 83 and 15.7 seconds remaining, he drew up a play for what proved to be the game's final possession.
"It's a play we ran last year," Hoiberg said afterward, victorious.
The Cyclones didn't have DeAndre Kane last year though, and it sure is a good thing they did Sunday at the AT&T Center, tied with No. 6 seed North Carolina and without Georges Niang (foot), the team's closer the past few weeks. Kane was the only Cyclone to score in the paint in the first half and after a frustrating start to the second period had begun to heat up, scoring or assisting on 13 of the team's final 15 points, including a breakaway layup for an 83-81 lead. Carolina's James Michael McAdoo converted two free throws the following possession to knot the score. Now the game belonged to Kane, the 24-year-old transfer from Marshall who just this weekend sniffed his first NCAA tourney experience.
Kane brought the ball up the court, maneuvering to his right around a screen set by Melvin Ejim. Then, on a dime, he crossed over to his left, pressing his right shoulder into the chest of North Carolina forward J.P. Tokoto. Kane planted his left foot and rose with both hands, spinning the ball off his right fingertips. Improbably, it kissed off the glass, a few inches over the backboard square, and dropped.
The bucket — which Hoiberg called "a heck of a play" — gave Kane a game-high 24 points, secured for Iowa State a thrilling 85-83 victory and delivered to a long-suffering fan base its best reason to celebrate since 2000, the last time Iowa State advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
"We drew up a play over there and [Hoiberg] told me to go over there in isolation," Kane said. "It was a stagger away to get the defense distracted. I made a crazy shot. Give credit to coach."
North Carolina tried to call a timeout after bringing the ball halfway up the court but once it was determined the clock started late the referees called the game, a wild one which was tied 10 times and saw the lead change 10 times. Neither team led by double digits but North Carolina's eight-point advantage with less than four minutes appeared to be the death knell for the Cyclones.
Sophomore guard Naz Long, clutch all season, scored nine of his 12 points on three three-pointers in the final five minutes and Monte Morris hit a key trey of his own to cut the North Carolina lead to two points with 2:03 remaining. Kane twice broke ties in the final minute with layups, including the eventual game-winner.
"It's everything I dreamed of. It's everything I played basketball for since I was a little kid," Long said of going to the Sweet Sixteen, where Iowa State (28-7, 11-7) will face seventh-seeded Connecticut. "I was beating myself up at halftime. I missed so many wide open shots; that's very uncharacteristic of me. I'm not allowed to do that, especially when we have a great player like Georges out."
Niang, who cited by teammates as the loudest player on the bench, didn't play but contributed as much as he could. He addressed his teammates before Sunday's game and tried to instill confidence in them that they could take down the Tar Heels without him on the floor.
"I basically just said we've been fighting adversity all year," said Niang, who broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot Friday against N.C. Central and is out for the season. "We can do this regardless of what people say, writing us off so early before the game has even started. I said I believe in you guys fully. If you believe in yourselves, we can do this."
Some doubted if Iowa State could get past North Carolina (24-10, 13-5) without Niang, who averaged 20.4 points per game over his last five contests and scored a team-high 24 points in Friday's win over NC Central. No one in the Cyclones' locker room bought into that.
"You know what? They're probably going to say the same thing the next game," said Daniel Edozie, who replaced Niang in the Cyclones' starting lineup. "When somebody says something against us, how we can't do this or we can't do that, we say, ‘Ok, we're going to find a way as brothers to fight that.'"
The win is extra sweet considering what happened last year, the Cyclones suffering a heartbreaking defeat in the NCAA Tournament when Ohio State's Aaron Craft sent them with a game-winning, last-second three-pointer in the Round of 32. The Cyclones head to Madison Square Garden now because a game-winner went their way.
"When the ball went in, I kind of lost my mind a little bit," said New York native Dustin Hogue, who scored 14 points in the victory. "We've been dealing with nay-sayers all season saying we weren't going to be that good. Once Georges got injured, people didn't think we had enough to pull out this win. But this just goes to show we have depth and we have heart. And when you have enough heart, you can beat anybody."