Louisville, Ky.—Georges Niang sits in a cramped, painfully well-lit locker room in the bowels of the KFC Yum! Center with a towel draped over his head. He stares at the floor, shifting occasionally in his seat. He mentally plods through the confusion and despair toward coherence as questions are lobbed at him in hushed, somber tones.
"It's just tough to just sit here and have this be a reality," Niang said. "I really, I'm sorry. I'm just at a loss for words. I wish things would have been different."
But things aren't different. Reality has descended upon the ISU locker room, and that reality is 60-59. That reality is the ISU season, packed full of 12 conference wins and a Big 12 tournament title, has just been lost by a single point to the 14th-seeded University of Alabama at Birmingham.
It is the first time all season that Iowa State has failed to score 60 points.
"It's just straight pitiful," said a stoic Monte Morris.
The reality is that all the hard work, all of the effort, the sweat, the love, the tears, the heartache, the triumph and at least a portion of the brotherhood ends here — more than 600 miles from home.
"It's as tough of a loss as I've ever been a part of," said ISU coach Fred Hoiberg.
The Cyclones tempted fate one time too many, and in Louisville, Ky, the trouble they've been dodging for weeks by way of second-half heroics finally caught up with them.
After successfully completing double-digit comebacks in their previous five games, the Cyclones were unable to wrestle victory away from the Blazers of UAB — a team that amassed a record of 16-15 in Conference USA before reeling off three straight victories in its conference tournament to earn a place in the Big Dance.
"Tonight, I guess our luck ran out as far as coming together," said a teary-eyed Jameel McKay."It sucks it had to end this way, but I guess this is how life goes."
There are a number of ISU deficiencies deserving of mention as contributors to the premature and unceremonious end to Iowa State's season, but the most prevalent is one that has reared its ugly head all season — the offensive glass.
The Blazers out-rebounded the Cyclones 52-37 on the night, including a 19-9 advantage on the offensive side of the ball. Hoiberg calls it the "difference." McKay admits that the advantage UAB earned on the glass boils down to one word — effort. Niang can only agree.
"We just didn't do a good job on the boards," Niang said. "I hate saying this, but they wanted it more for a little stretch out there."
It was a stretch the Cyclones were unable to weather in the same way they had weathered so many that came before it. There was no big 3-point shot to serve as a dagger — no forced turnover to create needed separation.
The ISU shooting was also deserving of blame, as the Cyclones only mustered 37 percent shooting from the floor and a 6-of-23 effort from behind the arc.
"We have no one to blame but ourselves," said Naz Long.
From the 10:27 mark in the first half until the 3:13 point in the second half, neither team held more than a three-point advantage. Niang hit two free throws to stretch the ISU lead to four, but UAB promptly responded.
On the final play of the night, Long caught a pass with an open look at a 3-pointer that would have tied the game — yet his shooting, just like the entire team's shooting throughout the course of the evening, failed him.
Long's shot rattled around the rim, and like so many of his team's field goal attempts, it almost dropped before popping out. Morris tapped it in, but it wasn't enough. Iowa State stared up at a one-point deficit with only 0.4 remaining on the clock — 0.4 remaining on the season. And there was nothing any of them could do.
"This one burns, man. It burns," Long said. "I'm going to miss these seniors. I'm going to miss playing with this team."