CHICAGO — Georges Niang stared down at his phone in a silent locker room with teammate Naz Mitrou-Long’s hand resting on the back of his head. His two crutches leaned up against the wall in the nearby corner and tears swelled.
Here Iowa State was, within one game of the fourth Sweet 16 in program and yet the silent locker room sat somber. With one awkward contortion, Niang had broken the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. He talked for a moment about a quick comeback, but his hopes were shortly after dashed. His season was over.
“You could have heard a pin drop,” Mitrou-Long said. “We were going to compete against North Carolina to get into the Sweet 16 and we felt like we lost.”
As Friday turned to Saturday hours later, Niang laid in one bed and Mitrou-Long the other of their two-bed hotel room in downtown San Antonio. At 1:08 a.m., Niang sent out a reassuring tweet and he did the same with Mitrou-Long. Niang danced when the Cyclones used a buzzer-beater to beat North Carolina in the next round of that 2014 NCAA tournament, but he sat with a boot on his foot in New York City.
Iowa State’s loss at Madison Square Garden to eventual champion UCONN left the team and fans wondering, ‘What if?’
Niang still stares at his phone each day, his lock screen reminding him of his most recent forgettable NCAA moment. The picture Niang must first encounter each time he unlocks his phone is one with his hands over his head following the Cyclones’ loss to UAB last season.
“It really helps me realize the pain that I went through,” Niang said. “When I see that screen saver, it makes me realize that I've got to get up and go get after it because nothing in this world is going to be handed to you. It's just a little extra motivation for me to get up and go chase after this dream.”
Now, he’s back.
Niang was on the court at the United Center on Thursday as the Cyclones prepare to face 1-seeded Virginia in the fifth Sweet 16 in school history. This is the senior All-American’s final shot and not one he takes lightly.
Iowa State will face a stiff test against the slow-paced Cavaliers, who ranked last in adjusted tempo according to KenPom. Yet this is nothing more than one of many tests Niang has encountered in his four-year career.
"It means everything, because he’s earned it," Mitrou-Long said. "To be here again, have an opportunity to go to the Elite Eight and play a No. 1 seed in Virginia, it’s awesome. He’s earned it. He deserves it to close out a great career that he’s had."