It finally happened. The last ride of Georges Niang came against the Virginia Cavaliers in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen.
Despite a huge night from Iowa State's star player, the Cyclones started off slowly and couldn't get themselves out of the rut. Niang did all he could with 30 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in his final game for ISU, but Virginia's bigs proved too much to handle all game for Iowa State and muscled their way to an Elite Eight berth while the folks in cardinal and gold were sent back West on I-88 toward home.
The game couldn't have started much worse for Iowa State. Virginia hit a 3-pointer on the opening possession, was answered by a Niang layup on the other end, then rattled off nine straight points to open up a 12-2 lead at the first media timeout.
The Cavs didn't stop there. Iowa State didn't get over three points on the board until 13:41 left in the half on a Monte Morris layup to make the score 17-5. Just a few minutes later, UVa extended their lead to 17 points on an Isaiah Wilkins dunk that pushed the score to 26-9. As Virginia was opening up their lead, Niang picked up his second foul with 12:46 remaining before halftime. He was subbed out at first and later inserted again, but luckily managed to avoid picking up his third.
However, being saddled with two fouls hurt Niang's ability to defend Virginia's bigs, and Jameel McKay offered little resistance down low in the first period. In total, the Cavaliers' big men combined for 25 of UVa's 45 first half points on a combined 10-13 shooting from the floor.
Prior to the half, Iowa State went on a streak of hitting 3-pointers, closing up the gap to make it a 14 point deficit heading into the locker room. In total, the Cyclones turned the ball over eight times before the halftime buzzer and gave up four offensive rebounds to Virginia, all of which were immediately followed by a UVa bucket except for one (which was followed by one of those other O-boards and a score). ISU also allowed the Cavaliers to shoot 61% from the field in the half, including a 4-9 mark on long balls.
Iowa State opened up the second by going on an 8-4 run, spearheaded by Niang and Matt Thomas, who each scored four points before Niang drew a foul to trigger the first media timeout. He made one of the resulting two free throws to cut it to single digits at 49-40. Malcolm Brogdon drew a foul of his own on the other end and made both free throws, but Niang found McKay on the following possession for a two-handed slam.
A huge moment happened with 13:10 left in the half when Georges Niang picked up his fourth foul of the game on a questionable call on defense. He was subbed out of the game in favor of Deonte Burton while the Cyclones were down eight. Just over a minute later the second media timeout of the second half came and the score stood at 59-48 in favor of the Cavaliers.
Virginia got the lead to 15 points on yet another offensive rebound and putback, causing Steve Prohm to call a timeout to put Niang back in with 9:02 left in the game despite having four fouls. ISU proceeded to get a Morris layup and one free throw from Niang, but Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill scored on consecutive possessions down low for the Cavaliers to continue Iowa State's theme of poor post defense. The deficit stood at 12 points with 6:41 remaining.
Both teams couldn't get much going on offense over the next few minutes. Heading into the last media timeout, it was a 10 point game at 68-58 Virginia. The Cyclones got a series of decent looks from outside, but the shots just weren't falling.
ISU went into their full-court man pressure following the timeout, but Virginia was able to break it relatively easily and got a couple big dunks in 2-on-1 situations to extend the lead to 14. Despite that, the Cyclones kept battling. Niang drew an and-1 with 1:43 remaining and made the free throw to make it an 11 point lead. It was followed by another Virginia basket after breaking the press, then Morris hit a layup to bring it back to 11.
That was the closest the Cyclones would get as the Cavaliers advanced to their first Elite Eight since 1995 with a final score of 84-71.
Besides Niang, there wasn't a whole lot of scoring help from the rest of the Cyclones. Matt Thomas was the second leading scorer with only 12 points. Burton added 11 off the bench and Morris had 10 of his own to go along with 8 assists.
As a team, Iowa State shot well from the field with a 51.9% mark, but couldn't string together enough stops to make a meaningful comeback. The Cavaliers did a great job sharing the ball against the Cyclone defense, tallying 26 assists on 32 field goals.
Huge credit to Tony Bennett and Virginia for the win. They played their game and it wore down ISU. They controlled the paint all game and if it weren't for Niang, the final score could have been much worse.
The loss wraps up the first season of the Steve Prohm era and marks the end of the careers of seniors Georges Niang, Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay. Huge shoutout to those three for their contributions to the Iowa State basketball program and a heartfelt goodbye to all three from WRNL. It's been a hell of a ride.