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CHICAGO — Georges Niang never let the thought his team wouldn’t come back enter his mind until the moment he trotted toward the bench.
As Niang ran off the court to a standing ovation from the thousands of Iowa State fans inside United Center, he embraced coach Steve Prohm. In that moment, all Prohm wanted to do was express his gratitude.
“I just said, ‘I’m sorry we couldn’t get you past this day,’” Prohm said. “I told him I loved him and appreciated him and thanked him for everything that he stuck by with me through this year.”
No. 4-seed Iowa State’s end to the season had a not-so-sweet way of unfolding in its 84-71 loss to 1-seed Virginia in the Sweet 16. Despite 30 points, eight rebounds and four assists from Niang in his final game for the Cyclones (23-12) the Cavaliers (29-7) led from start to finish, but it was the first four minutes of the first half that had Iowa State on its heels.
In a span of less than four minutes, Virginia built a 12-2 lead and started 6-for-8 shooting while Iowa State started only 1-for-5 from the field — the lone bucket being a layup from Niang. The Cavaliers led by as much as 17 in the first half and shot 60.7 percent from the field.
Starting slowly had Iowa State feeling like it was playing catch up from the onset.
“That killed us to go down that much against a team that stalls,” Niang said. “It’s tough when you’ve got to battle your way back and then me getting in foul trouble. It was tough.”
“You’re kind of in a hole and grinding the rest of the night,” Prohm said. “Our first-half defense just wasn’t good enough. The second half was. We got it to nine then had a couple 3s rim in and out and missed a couple free throws where we could have put some pressure on them.”
Niang was 11-for-20 from the field while Iowa State got Matt Thomas (12), Deonte Burton (11) and Monte Morris (10) into double figures and allowed Iowa State to make a push in the second half.
Thomas and Niang combined to score the first seven ISU points of the second half to get the deficit back to 10 and were on the floor when Iowa State cut the Virginia lead to seven with just more than 14 minutes to go, but that’s as close as it would get after Niang picked up his fourth foul less than a minute later.
Virginia shot 51.7 percent in the second half, but the blistering 17-for-28 output in the first 20 minutes was Iowa State’s undoing. Anthony Gill led the Cavaliers with 23 points while Mike Tobey added 18.
“We just didn’t really defend,” Morris said. “(Virginia’s) offense is so weird. They turn down open shots and make it a great shot. It was, at first, just feeling them out and feeling their offense out. We did that too late.”
Iowa State is 0-4 all-time against No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament and missed out on going to its first Elite Eight since 2000, but also put the finishing touches on Niang’s decorated career. He had two 28-point games and one 30-point performance in his last three NCAA tournament games and isn’t leaving the court bitter about how it ended.
“You look at my whole career and I don’t want to say I’m content hanging up my jersey because it feels like it’s too soon and happened too fast, but I know that I put every ounce of me into this university and this basketball program,” said Niang, who is the first player in NCAA tournament history to record at least 28 points, five rebounds and three assists in three straight games.
“There’s some part of me that’s OK with being able to step back for a second and watch as a fan or (alumnus) now just because I know I put my heart and soul into this university and basketball program.”