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There are those who question the value of teams going deep into conference basketball tournaments if they’ve secured a nice spot in the NCAA tourney.
Kansas, a probable No. 1 seed in the NCAAs come Sunday, saved itself some wear and tear by losing to TCU in the Big 12 quarterfinals here Thursday. But that’s all it did. The Jayhawks fans sprinkled throughout Sprint Center Friday night didn’t seem too chipper about it.
Chipper doesn’t begin to describe Iowa State, which has approached this league tourney with passion and precision. The way the Cyclones cut up TCU in their 84-63 Friday semifinal rout of the Horned Frogs said plenty. But Iowa State guard Naz Mitrou-Long said more afterward.
“We want this one just so bad,” he said.
Mitrou-Long has a personal eight-game winning streak in this event, though he wouldn’t look at it that way since was on ISU’s bench last year when it lost to Oklahoma in the quarterfinals. He was on ISU’s championship teams of 2014 and 2015. Two isn’t enough.
“The will to play again is what got me through my rehab,” Mitrou-Long said, “and this situation right now is everything I’ve dreamed of since I couldn’t play anymore.”
He had nagging hip problems dating back to his high school days in Mississauga, Ontario. He had surgeries after his junior season to repair a torn labrum in each hip. He came back in time for the 2015-16 season, but it was too soon.
Mitrou-Long played in ISU’s first eight games, the maximum before shutting it down and taking a medical redshirt and getting another year of eligibility. He wasn’t anywhere near all the way back yet. The pain was too much.
“A lot of people on the outside have no idea all the hard work he put in to come back,” said fellow senior Matt Thomas. “When he shut it down, it was hard to take for him and us. He’s the heart and soul of this team.”
Friday, in Game No. 32 of this Iowa State season that produced Win No. 22, Mitrou-Long was like everyone else Cyclones Coach Steve Prohm sent out to play. He flew all over the place. He had 11 points in 34 minutes, but more noticeably, the 6-foot-4 shooting guard collared seven defensive rebounds.
He seemingly grabbed each one as they were as precious as, well, a third championship ring.
The two he owns, he said, are “front and center in my bedroom. Every morning I wake up and I can see them. You play the game to win, and something like that is a testament to hard work and everything you put in.
“When you’re 50, 60 years old you’ll be able to bust them back and your grandchildren will think they’re real diamonds. They’ll look like it because they’re worth that.”
It’s already been a happy and emotional week for Mitrou-Long before reaching tonight’s final. Elijah Long, Naz’s brother, got his own trip to the NCAAs assured when his Mount St. Mary’s team won the Northeast Conference title game Tuesday over St. Francis (Pa.).
Long, a sophomore guard, averaged 21.7 points in becoming the league’s tournament Most Valuable Player.
“That put a golf ball in my throat,” Mitrou-Long said. “He’s worked so hard and his whole life he’s been overlooked. He had barely any offers. He used to cry to me, saying he wished he could play D-1.
“To see him be MVP of the NEC tournament and average 20-some and lead his team to the Big Dance,” Mitrou-Long said, “that’s all a big brother could ask for.”
The Cyclones had a team meal at the Capital Grille steakhouse here Tuesday night. They watched Mount St. Mary’s game on television as they ate.
“I almost choked up on my steak,” Mitrou-Long said, speaking figuratively. “It was a great moment.”
On Saturday, he’ll try to be the second member of his family to snip a net this week.
Asked if he had doubts last year that he could again be as good as he was, Mitrou-Long didn’t give an athlete’s stock positive answer.
“Every day,” he said.
But this winter he has played with desire and joy, with the skill and savvy you expect of a veteran who knows how to win.
A third ring, that might be the one that looks the most like a diamond when he’s a granddad.