LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A smile appeared on Georges Niang’s face as he walked on the NCAA tournament court inside the KFC Yum! Center while a rambunctious lady with no apparent affiliation shouted remarks as she had done throughout the day.
In a fluid motion, Niang caught a pass, evaded a block attempt by teammate Abdel Nader and connected on a 3-pointer much to this yelling basketball fan’s approval.
“That’s focus, baby!” she yelled from the second row. “That’s focus!”
Niang couldn’t help but smile, and that smile said it all. Nearly one year after a broken foot changed both his and Iowa State’s trajectory, Niang was back on the uniform NCAA court preparing for his third run in March Madness.
This is a moment the junior has long awaited, ever since that fateful night.
“He kept saying that we’d be back,” teammate Naz Long said. “He kept preaching: ‘Comeback season, comeback season.’ Now we’re back and his focus is on another level. It’s second to none of anyone in this tournament. He’ll be ready.”
The first instinct last March told Niang his foot was cramping.
When he came down on the defender’s foot in Iowa State’s opening game of last season’s NCAA tournament in San Antonio, his foot was contorted awkwardly upon landing in the paint. He continued to play and even scored, but when the pain continued, Niang was taken through the winding hallways of the AT&T Center to the X-ray machine.
It was there where Niang learned his fate. He returned to the Iowa State locker room in the bowels of the arena where he leaned two crutches in the nearby corner and grabbed a chair in front of his locker. Tears swelled in his eyes, but as Niang heard his teammate’s footsteps — realizing they had won — he held back his emotions.
Back on the court, after Iowa State had dispatched N.C. Central to advance, coach Fred Hoiberg awaited a postgame interview when trainer Vic Miller stopped over.
“It’s broken,” Miller relayed.
“It was hard to get through that interview,” Hoiberg said. “It was emotional. I had to break the news to our guys about what had just happened.”
In a somber locker room, sitting with a reddened right foot, Niang talked about the possibility of a comeback. There would be no such chance. Niang’s season was over with a broken fifth metatarsal in his foot.
Back at the team hotel hours later, Niang and Long laid in their beds talking.
“That was probably one of the toughest nights for Georges,” Long said. “As a basketball player growing up watching the NCAA tournament, you dream about playing on that stage, about getting to the Final Four and just doing big things for your school. I know when he was no longer physically able to do that a couple tears came to his eyes.”
Iowa State would eventually advance to the Sweet 16 without its leader, but a loss at Madison Square Garden in New York City to eventual national champion UConn left fans wondering what might have been.
“It was extremely hard being out,” Niang said. “To have something one day and have it taken away the next, that was extremely hard to deal with.”
The adversity fueled Niang. He worked to lose 25 pounds in the offseason and worked on his game. The effort resulted in Niang averaging 15.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game this season en route to being named All-Big 12 First Team.
In Kansas City for the Big 12 Championship, Niang averaged 18 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists per game to win Most Outstanding Player as Iowa State won back-to-back postseason conference tournaments for the first time in program history.
Four days later, Niang was back in the spot he’s long awaited, preparing for his third run in the NCAA tournament nearly one year after a broken foot halted his last.
“It’s been something I’ve been thinking about ever since my injury,” Niang said Wednesday as UAB awaits Iowa State. “I’m happy to be back, but I have my eyes set on the prize and where I want this team to be going.”