By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Different era, different coach, same fans … and now, after a 14-year wait, a second Big 12 Conference Championship.
Iowa State last took home the trophy in 2000. That team lost to eventual national champion Michigan State in a regional final.
This edition of the fourth-seeded Cyclones appears equipped to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. They might have validated their post-season resume by overcoming a polar vortex shooting start to overcome seventh-seeded Baylor, 74-65, Saturday night in the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship.
Iowa State missed a baker’s dozen shots to start the game. But just as the Cyclones weathered a 16-0 Kansas run in the first half of the semifinals, they didn’t panic and they overcame.
“It wasn't looking great, I've gotta be honest with you,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We slowly chipped away, and our fans had so much to do with that. When you've got a fan base like that, it helps you, when things aren't going well.
"We didn't lose our composure. Just a gutty, gutty performance by our guys."
Reserve Naz Long broke the seal; his 3-pointer with 12:27 remaining in the first half was Iowa State’s first basket. He would later make a more important shot.
“I’ve got confidence in my dudes,” said Long, who came off the bench to make 4-of-6 from behind the arc and provide a much-needed spark. “I felt like I needed to bring some energy. We’ve got so many offensive weapons and there’s nobody else I’d want to go to war with.”
The slump grew and Iowa State missed 15 of its first 16 shots but Baylor could only build a 10-point lead.
“Our defense was really, really good tonight,” Hoiberg said. “We shoot 32 percent at halftime. We're lucky to shoot that. But we held them to 34, and that's why we weren't in too big of a hole.”
Iowa State at times handled the basketball like it was a live grenade. In one stretch they turned it over on five of nine possessions. Despite the charity, Baylor couldn’t stretch the lead.
“Unfortunately, we didn't get a big enough lead,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team was trying to be the first to win four games in four days in the Big 12 Championship. “Iowa State, as quick as they score, I mean, there is no safe lead.”
That proved Iowa State trailed 32-27 at halftime. Big 12 player of the year Melvin Ejim was scoreless.
“Coming out of the half (Hoiberg) just said keep your composure and keep taking those shots and they're going to start to fall,” said Ejim, who finished with 10 points and nine rebounds as the Cyclones out-boarded the bigger Bears, 38-28. “It was all about keeping our composure down the stretch. We knew that we were going to make a run just like they made a run and it was just a matter of time until shots started falling and we were going to jump out on them.”
That’s exactly what happened. After the 0-for-13 start, the Cyclones scorched Baylor by making 24 of their final 35 shots (68.6 percent) and finished 24-of-48 from the field and 8-of-15 on 3-pointers. In three games, Iowa State was 31-of-63 (49.2 percent) on threes and set a Championship record for most 3-pointers.
Baylor had trailed for only one minute and 37 seconds in four games. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Long and Ejim with just under six minutes to play gave the Cyclones their first lead. The Bears, though, kept the outcome in doubt until the final four minutes.
The game turned on a Canadian Standoff.
Baylor senior Brady Heslip (Burlington, Ontario) buried his fourth 3-pointer in six attempts with 3:58 remaining to give the Bears a 58-56 lead. Heslip’s feet were nearly on the sideline before he launched over Long’s defense.
Long (Mississauga, Ontario) then responded with a 25-footer that tickled the twine and gave the Cyclones a 59-58 lead. The Bears never led again.
“We had a little competition going on,” Long said. “That’s my boy, my Canadian brother.”
Not exactly a brotherly thing to do.
“That was a big shot,” Heslip said. “If guys are making shots from that far out it's pretty difficult to guard. We don’t get to cut these nets down but we’re going to cut some nets down in Dallas.”
Don’t take that statement lightly. Heslip is the same guy who said Baylor was going to make history when the Bears were 3-8 in the Big 12.
Niang’s dribble drive from the top of the key, beating Austin, gave the Cyclones a 68-62 lead with 36.7 seconds remaining. Baylor had breathed its final gasp.
Somehow it didn’t make the local newscasts, but apparently there was a severe outbreak of minor head injuries here over the last 24 hours. Hundreds upon hundreds of Iowa State fans were wearing bandages over their right eyes.
That was a tribute to Niang, who suffered a bloody gash that required five stitches late in the semifinal victory. In the final minute as the Cyclones headed to shoot more put-it-away free throws, Niang thumped his chest and pointed to his bandaged eyebrow.
“I shot 5 for 15,” said Niang, who scored 13. “The Band‑Aid is obviously not good luck.”
The ladder was brought out for the net cutting, the platform was assembled for the trophy, championship hats and t-shirts were distributed. And Hoiberg did a victory lap on the Sprint Center court, pointing to the fans clad in cardinal and gold (probably 17,000 of the 19,108 cheered for the winner). Then he punched the air in Johnny Orr fashion.
“The fist pump was such an emotional feeling for me, I really thought about Coach Orr,” Hoiberg said of his coach at Iowa State who passed away Dec. 30. “I know he's been watching over us this year and this one's for him.
“And also to thank the fans as well, it truly was Hilton South today. A special moment, but also a very emotional moment for me.”
DeAndre Kane, Iowa State, Sr., G (Most Outstanding Player)
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas, Fr., G
Isaiah Austin, Baylor, So., C
Georges Niang, Iowa State, So., F
Melvin Ejim, Iowa State, Sr., F