DENVER — Three words have guided Steve Prohm and this Iowa State team through its at times rollercoaster season, so it was rather fitting that one persistent command helped extend it.
Late in the first half Saturday night, Prohm folded his left arm, fist-closed, and pulled it toward his face, pointing toward his elbow with his right hand.
He shouted across the court: “Elbow!”
Georges Niang popped to the top of the key, took the ball from Monte Morris and drained a 3-pointer. The next time down the court, Prohm shouted again, ‘Elbow!’ Again and again, Iowa State persistently ran the same play, daring Little Rock to find an answer for Niang and Iowa State’s quest at a fifth Sweet 16 appearance.
No answer ever came.
“Can we force him left?” Little Rock coach Chris Beard asked his players during one timeout, presumably after Niang scored eight straight using the same play.
“Coach,” they responded, “there's so much space, he can go left, too.”
Niang and the Cyclones used that persistence and their best defensive performance this season en route to a 17-point, 78-61, victory against 12-seeded Little Rock on Saturday at the Pepsi Center to advance to their second Sweet 16 in three seasons, seemingly validating Prohm’s other persistent command.
“I said, ‘Stay the course,’ a lot [this season],” Prohm said. “A lot of people laughed, didn’t think that really would work. The character in our locker room was really, really good. I just can’t say how proud I am because we could have divided so many times, so many times. They wouldn’t do it. They wouldn’t waver.”
“He never lost sight of his vision,” Niang said of Prohm. “He’s been stressing to us since he got here, ‘It’s how you’re playing in March.’”
That is a message Niang and Co. has apparently taken to heart.
The Cyclones led for more than 38 minutes Saturday, taking complete control late in the first half when Prohm raised his left arm and yelled his command.
First, Niang hit a 3 from the right wing. Then he pump-faked his defender and drove him to the basket. He finished his flurry with another 3. The three identical play calls and eight consecutive points from the All-American proved to be part of a 10-0 run for the Cyclones that extended their lead to double-digits.
Little Rock undoubtedly knew what was coming and yet had no answer.
“Two words, man: Georges Niang,” Morris explained. “He’s a bad man. When he’s got it going it’s really, really hard to beat us. Once he made a couple he told me he was throwing the rock in the ocean, so keep feeding him. When he tells me that, I just know what type of night he’s going to have.”
“Once he scored once I was going to [that play] until he [missed],” Prohm said. “He felt comfortable with that, he was making great plays and I wasn’t going to change it until they stopped it.”
When Iowa State went scoreless for more than three minutes in the second half, Little Rock cutting its game-high 20-point deficit to 15, Prohm went back to his team’s bread and butter on this night, shouting his command again. Niang drove, spun and nailed a jumper, two of his game-high 28 points, which helped move him to second all-time in scoring in Iowa State history, passing Barry Stevens.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Niang said of the persistence. “That’s what we were doing. We tried to run the heck out of that play and we got a lot out of it.”
Even as Little Rock slowed Iowa State to 63 possessions on this night, the Cyclones countered with efficient offense, scoring 78 points on nearly 57 percent shooting from the field (including 11-of-21 from 3).
Defensively, Morris shut down Little Rock’s Josh Hagins, who scored 31 in the Trojans’ upset of fifth-seeded Purdue in the first round Thursday. Save for two late 3s, Morris allowed Hagins only two other points.
“You win games by having great players and I’ve been able coach a lot of them,” Prohm said. “That stretch, I thought, in the first half, the way [Niang] closed the half, that’s why we won the game. That and our defensive effort.”
Persistence has Iowa State playing its best basketball in March, and persistence has it headed to Chicago for the Sweet 16. Together, those have combined to have this team focused on a course that goes much further.
“I think we’re better than the Sweet 16 to be truthfully honest,” Jamaal McKay said. “I’m not shameful of saying that or scared to say it — I think we’re better than the Sweet 16. It’s up to us to show it.”