NCAA Tournament: Iowa State vs. Connecticut

Senior forward Melvin Ejim shoots over a Connecticut player during Iowa State's 81-76 loss to the Huskies on March 27 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Ejim scored seven points and had eight rebounds in his final game as a Cyclone.

NEW YORK — Melvin Ejim sat at his locker rattling off the season’s accomplishments one-by-one, thinking back as he often does.

There were no tears rolling out of the senior’s eyes as he sat in the bottom of Madison Square Garden, his ISU career complete after Iowa State fell to Connecticut in the Sweet 16. Just as the history major often does, he put the season’s events into perspective.

“We’ve done so many great things this year putting the program on the map,” Ejim said. “Why would I let one loss eclipse all of that?”

One game did not define an entire season. So, with his four-year career done, the Big 12 Player of the Year began looking back.

He talked about Iowa State’s 14-0 start to the season, the best mark in school history. He remembered what it was like to cut down the nets in Kansas City, the Cyclones Big 12 champions for the second time ever and first time since 2000. He talked about what a third-straight NCAA tournament appearance meant.

And a Sweet 16 appearance, just the fourth in ISU history and the first since 2000? That, he said, wouldn’t soon fall by the wayside.

“All this stuff is going to be on paper, it’s going to speak for itself,” Ejim said. “[Iowa State has] taken leaps, not even steps, leaps in the right direction under coach Fred [Hoiberg]. I’m so happy for this program and how far we were able to take it.”

Prior to every practice this season, the Cyclones would talk about the people who overlooked them. Players saw some of the rankings that had them in the bottom half of the Big 12 and occasional signs on their lockers reminded them.

When unranked Iowa State played No. 7 Michigan in mid-November, it used the nationally televised game to show what it could do. A win, one of nine against top-25 opponents, pushed the Cyclones into the rankings and the team never fell out, finishing No. 9 in the nation.

A trip to New York cemented the Cyclones with the nation’s elite.

“To be one of 16 teams left in the whole country, it was a long ride for us, a great journey,” said senior DeAndre Kane, who transferred to Ames from Marshall to finish his career. “I couldn’t be more happy for coach for giving me a second chance. I hope I made him proud.”

The fourth-year ISU coach stood in the locker room following his team’s five-point loss at the Garden and thought back, too. When Hoiberg was young, he would walk to Hilton Coliseum from his yellow house just a few blocks west of the arena.

Saturday, Hoiberg stood in the locker room and told his players he was proud. Iowa State had returned to prominence.

“You can’t ever take that away from these guys,” Hoiberg said of his team’s accolades. “That’s something that I’ll always remember.”

The banners that fall from the rafters at Hilton Coliseum early next season for the Big 12 title, NCAA tournament appearance and the Sweet 16 will make sure of that.

“Iowa State did it. We did it this year. We did a special thing,” said sophomore Naz Long. “You’ve got to cherish these moments, man. These moments are unforgettable.”

The moments included legendary coach Johnny Orr first-pumping onto the court with Fred Hoiberg. And Hilton Coliseum shook as the Cyclones knocked off in-state rival Iowa down the stretch weeks later.

Just more than a month after Orr walked onto the court, he passed away, and the Cyclones dedicated their season to him with a somber tribute as players pointed up to an illuminated banner after the game.

The team twice won overtime thrillers against Oklahoma State, the first requiring three extra periods, and both times with late 3-pointers. 

All that helped Fred Hoiberg stand with his twin sons on the ladder cutting down nets as Big 12 champions, just as the team often talked about in the final weeks of the season. It had Iowa State figuratively, and Hoiberg literally, dancing in March Madness to New York City and the Sweet 16.

And so Ejim sat at his locker and smiled, for he said there was no reason not to. As he so often has done in the classroom in his history classes, he did from his seat. He thought back.

“I’m a history major, so I love history,” Ejim said. “It’s going to be cool to look back and see I was able to impact this school in a positive way. It’s something that’s going to last for a lifetime. It’s what I’m going to cherish.”

History in the making? How about history made.

“Everyone watched it,” Ejim said. “We brought basketball and Hilton Magic and the excitement back to Ames.”

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