DENVER — The thoughts bounced around Georges Niang’s head in the early morning hours Thursday as he tossed and turned in bed in his downtown Denver hotel room with Iowa State’s NCAA tournament opener quickly drawing closer.
Before Niang had first gone to bed at 11 p.m. Wednesday, he watched his hotel TV as ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt picked Iowa State as his favorite to get upset Thursday. By 3 a.m., the senior forward was tossing and turning.
First, he fiddled with Pandora on his phone. He clicked on the Relaxation station with no luck and his switch to the yoga music failed to work too. By 5 a.m., just seven hours before tipoff at the Pepsi Center, Niang still laid awake.
“It was just a mess,” said Niang, who eventually fell asleep at 5:30 a.m. “I ended up falling asleep and counting my breaths to get me to sleep.”
“I think I was just eager to play,” Niang said. “I was [like], I need to get rest but I could play the game right now. I’m just a competitor. It was just eating me up with people saying, ‘They’re going to get upset.’ It’s like, ‘A.J. English, A.J. English.’
"Well, what about the Iowa State Cyclones?”
By late Thursday afternoon, the fourth-seeded Cyclones had dispelled those notions from national pundits who put Iowa State on upset alert. With a 94-81 victory against 13-seeded Iona, Iowa State has, for a period of time at least, shifted its focus away from last season’s season-ending heartbreaking loss to UAB and toward the opportunity at hand Saturday against 12-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock.
The extension of Iowa State’s season came with the assistance of an efficient offensive performance that lived up to the pregame hype. Iowa State scored 94 points — the second-most in school history in an NCAA tournament game — with a fast-paced 78 possessions and 50 percent shooting to upend the Gaels.
After Iona scored the game’s first five points, Iowa State scored the next 11 and never looked back, eventually building its lead to a game-high 18 points.
“I thought our first-half defense was really good,” coach Steve Prohm said. “[It] gave us a double-digit lead going into half. We kind of traded buckets in the second half, but were able to finish the game. Now we're on to the next round.”
And a sleep-deprived Niang was no worse for the wear.
The senior forward, who has now played the most games in Iowa State history (136), scored 28 points to propel the offense, matching English’s 28 for Iona. Niang went 3-of-12 in the game’s first half before going 8-of-11 down the stretch.
“I was shooting a lot, so that’s probably why I had 28 points,” Niang said. “The guys were telling me, ‘You’re getting to your spots, you’re getting your shots, you’re just short-arming it.’ I wanted to make it a point to get to the front of the rim as much as I could in the second half and I think I did a pretty solid job of that.”
Even as Iowa State now heads to Saturday with an opportunity to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years, UAB will remain on its mind. The Cyclones used last season’s loss as motivation before the game when Jameel McKay broke the huddle telling teammates, ‘Remember, every possession counts. Remember that feeling last year.’
This win won't make that feeling disappear.
“Even though we got over the first round we just know the taste we still had [last season] and we don’t want that taste any time soon,” said Morris, who scored 20 points and dished out eight assists. “I’m just trying to give it my all. I want to be able to sit on my couch and know I gave everything I had with no regrets.”
So Iowa State moves forward with sharp focus. Niang was focused on napping late Thursday afternoon, but he remains mindful of what still stands ahead in the Mile High City.
“You have to have great focus, and you can’t be satisfied,” Niang said. “People expected us to win this game and you can’t be satisfied with just going in and winning one game. That’s not what we’re here for. We feel like we can make a deep run, so we’re going to go out there and try to do it to the best of our abilities.”