KANSAS CITY -- Georges Niang huddled his fellow starters just in front of the Iowa State bench moments before the second half was about to begin. Here his team was again, down double-figures and in a heap of trouble.
So Niang wrapped his outstretched arms around the group and began to speak. The words flowed from his mouth, each carrying significance. Iowa State had fallen into double-digit deficits in the four previous games only to surge back. Niang pleaded with his teammates to not give up on a fifth-straight push.
“Hey guys, we dug ourselves in a hole,” Niang began, his head bobbing with each word. “We’ve been here before. We’ve just got to dig deep and keep pushing through it. Don’t stop until all three zeros are on the clock.”
The five starters raised their hands.
“Brothers on three,” Niang shouted.
At 7:14 p.m. inside the Sprint Center, Niang was huddled again. The red light around the baskets glowed red and the clocks above them flashed zeros across the top. Iowa State had erased a 17-point deficit to claim its second consecutive Big 12 Championship with a 70-66 comeback victory against top-seeded Kansas.
Now Niang spoke in another huddle, explaining the goose bumps on his arms.
“I get chills thinking about it,” Niang said, shouting above the crowd. “It’s just great for this program, great for these guys and great for our fans.”
With a series of mini runs late in the game’s first half, Kansas began pulling away. The Cyclones connected on only 10-of-29 shots in the first half, and Niang and Abdel Nader combined for 17 of the team’s 23 points as it went to the break facing a 14-point deficit. For the fifth time in the last two weeks, Iowa State faced a challenge.
After overcoming a 16-point deficit against Texas in the quarterfinals, Iowa State won on a Monte Morris buzzer-beater. In the semifinals, the Cyclones erased an 11-point deficit and squeaked by Oklahoma late.
In front of a quiet locker room, his team trailing on this night by 14 points at the break, Fred Hoiberg attempted to lift his team yet again.
“He came in and let us know, ‘Look, we’re in the championship game, anything is possible,’” Naz Long said. “Anything is possible in this game. He just continued to tell us, ‘Believe, believe, believe.’ And we kept believing and pulled it out.”
When Iowa State had broken that huddle formed by Niang, it watched Kansas push its lead to 17 just 26 seconds into the half when Morris fouled Frank Mason III on a 3-point attempt. The Cyclones had faced adversity to reach this night, but now it had reached a peak. Maybe the magical comebacks were over.
Then something happened again. Iowa State refused to fold.
Jameel McKay put in a layup on the next possession, Georges Niang hit a jumper on the next and suddenly Iowa State was in business. The Cyclones scored on six consecutive possessions and drew within single-digits.
“Once we realized we could play with these dudes, a couple shots started falling, it was like, now it’s a game,” said McKay, who finished with 11 points. “We never once came in here doubting.”
In the span of 5 minutes, 10 seconds, Kansas' double-figure lead had evaporated. With a 17-2 run, Iowa State drew within two. Nearly eight minutes later, the Cyclones took a two-point lead when Bryce Dejean-Jones got to the rim for a layup. Iowa State never trailed again.
“Guys have just found a way to go on runs with our backs against the wall,” Hoiberg said. “That’s a sign of a true team and a good team, is you can handle that type of adversity. It starts with your players. When you’ve got leadership like we have in that locker room, you can handle the tough times.”
When Kansas tied the game at 63-all, Iowa State sealed its second consecutive championship from the free throw line.
Iowa State was led by Niang, who finished with 19 points, but without Nader, who scored 13, and Dejean-Jones, who added seven, a comeback on this night would have proven futile. As the Cyclones have demonstrated in recent weeks, this is a team comprised of many parts.
The double-digit comeback was the fifth in as many games and the third in as many days. The comeback from the 14-point halftime deficit marks the largest of any Big 12 Championship final in conference history.
The Cyclones survived with a buzzer-beater. Then they beat the three-seed. They upstaged those performances and claimed back-to-back postseason conference titles for the first time in school history with a one more to remember.
“Our guys showed great character and resolve and kept fighting through the tough times and just found a way,” Hoiberg said. “That’s what I’ll remember from this tournament is how the guys came together through those difficult times and pulled out three incredible wins against three great teams.”
“To do something like we did in this tournament just shows the world and everything about life that nothing is over until it’s over,” Long added. “We showed grit.”
Niang stood in a new huddle after colored confetti fell to the Sprint Center floor. He talked of the goose bumps on his arms and a new culture in Ames. Then he paused for a moment to talk about his team and began preaching just as he had to his teammates on the edge of the court earlier in the night.
“We’re a gritty group that’s never going to give up,” Niang said. “We’ve got a ton of guys that have a lot of heart on this team. I’d go to battle any day.”