NEW YORK — Fred Hoiberg, Dustin Hogue and DeAndre Kane were the first ones out of Iowa State's locker room late Friday night, flanked by Iowa State support staff — including athletics director Jamie Pollard — along a narrow hallway backstage Madison Square Garden, headed to a press conference.
Against the grain they went, as the pack of media hustled toward the Cyclones' locker room for open availability. Hoiberg wore a blank stare, his blue eyes steered straight ahead. Hogue followed, then Kane, who Pollard tried to console, Iowa State's 81-76 loss to UConn way too fresh.
Ten minutes later, the trio returned. The first thing Kane did was huddle with sophomore Naz Long in a corner of the room. Kane pulled his jersey above his eyes, wiping away a few tears, then plopped down next to fellow senior Melvin Ejim, groaning, "Free throwsssssss."
Ejim turned to his right and smiled.
"You're good, man. I shot 3-for-13."
Kane looked at the cameras. The first question he received was about the foul shots, where he went 2-for-9. Per Kane's season average, he should have made at least six. The Cyclones, says the math, lost by five.
"The team didn't miss a lot but I missed several," Kane said. "So I put a lot of that on me and my shoulders."
In true Kane fashion, the bullish point guard finished with a respectable stat line: Sixteen points, nine rebounds, eight assists, just two turnovers.
Ejim was off from the get-go, turning in one of his worst performances of the year. The Big 12's Player of the Year wasn't happy about how the game was called, and the liberating thing about playing the last game of your career is, well, you can say whatever you want afterward.
"I thought the refs might call something," said Ejim of contact near the rim, where he made one shot. "But apparently those weren't fouls."
There was bitterness here, but there was also pride. The season they had. The comebacks they spun. The one they almost made in full against the No. 7 seed Huskies.
"We brought excitement back to Ames," Ejim said. "It's been fun, it's been great. Still sucks we lose. I'm pretty sure the feeling feels that same that it did last year and the year before. But we made it to the Sweet Sixteen and that's something this school hasn't done in a while and something to be extremely proud of."
UConn All-American point guard Shabazz Napier got his night going with a three-pointer at the top of the key, his thin legs splayed in the air. For his next act, he jab-stepped Ejim in the left corner, then stepped back and drilled another trey. Blink, three. Huskies loyalists have grimaced at the recent Kemba Walker comparisons. In scoring 19 points tonight, the first 12 off first-half three-pointers, Napier turned in his "worst" NCAA tourney game yet this year.
Just in 2011, Napier and Jeremy Lamb were freshmen on UConn's title team, the one that reeled off 11 consecutive wins behind Walker's bonanza, an unreal display of scoring — a high of 36 in the span, a low of 16 — that led to his being selected No. 9 overall by Charlotte in the next NBA Draft.
Back at the World's Most Famous Arena, where the Huskies began their '11 run with five Big East wins, and an uptown-bound train from Harlem's Rice High School, where Walker played, Napier was at least in the stratosphere of his former teammate.
"I've been scared before in these situations," Napier said. "But I learned the various ways of handling that. I just go out there and have fun. I don't want to put any pressure on myself."
What really did Iowa State in, though, was the fact that UConn's DeAndre Daniels was even better, closing out the first half with seven of UConn's final 11 points, then beginning the second period with buckets on three consecutive series, then two devastating three-pointers within a 50-second span to give the Huskies a 17-point lead.
Fred Hoiberg took Melvin Ejim out for an ovation and a hug with three seconds left. Had it not been for Dustin Hogue, the curtain call would have come much earlier. A native of Yonkers, N.Y., with a swarm of friends and family in town, Hogue took the Cyclones' junk in the halfcourt offense and made something pretty out of it, scoring a career-best 34 points, mostly on twisting, off-balance shots in the post, where he compensated for his size disadvantage by jumping higher and floating longer.
"With Melvin having such a hard time shooting the ball, I had to take things into my own hands," the 6-foot-6 Hogue said. "It was all about my teammates finding me. They got me involved on offense.
"There's nothing like playing in front of your friends and family … definitely gives you a different type of gear to kick into."
On any other night, Hogue scores 34 and the Cyclones win by 20, but not Friday, not in the presence of The Daniels & Napier Show — Napier was slowed by Monté Morris in the second half — and not with Ejim and Kane playing inefficiently.
And, yes, not without Georges Niang. After breaking a bone in his foot last week, Niang has kept his spirit up and served as cheerleader via bench. He admitted Friday to lying in bed and letting his mind wander back to the second half against North Carolina Central, the easy win. What if the fifth metatarsal hadn't snapped? Really, what if he had just taken a defensive series off and not tried to contest a long jumper?
"Everything happens for a reason," Niang said Friday night, working through a plate of postgame penne. "You guys have a lot to look forward to and that's a promise."
The future was a topic of conversation in the locker room, Ejim and Kane each saying they were ready to sit back and watch what happens with the program they helped change in different ways. Ejim's been there since the very dawn of After McDermott, when Hoiberg flew to convince him he should still sign on for something special in Ames. Kane arrived in Central Iowa last summer and exceeded internal and expectations, serving as the team's engine, threatening for a triple-double each game, being the dog the team needed.
Ejim and Kane, they'll leave the same way, the same time: Kicking themselves for their final performance but retrospective enough to know this — the first Sweet Sixteen, the first tournament championship since 2000 — will go on a banner and in the record books. Murky pro futures await, one soon to turn 25-years-old, the other a way-undersized power forward, albeit with an improving outside game.
Maybe if Daniels and Napier kept quiet Friday, maybe if they got a few free throws and layups to roll in, maybe if Niang had never tried to block that jumper, the Cyclones would be in the Elite Eight. Instead, the Cyclones leave New York City in the morning, a direct flight headed back to Ames, where nobody will soon forget what happened this season.