Reversal of fortune
Iowa State entertained fans and charmed bracketologists down the stretch of the season with five consecutive double-digit comeback victories, including three in a row on its way to another Big 12 championship.
With their backs against the wall time and time again, the Cyclones used the energy of the arena – whether at Hilton Coliseum or in Kansas City – and a now-or-never mentality to consistently emerge unscathed. A roster full of shooters and playmakers found their niche as an exciting, pressure-swatting ballclub that shrugged off any deficit and saved their best performances for clutch moments against heavyweight opponents.
And then it happened.
The early NCAA Tournament game on Thursday in Louisville, over 600 miles away from home. Tip before lunch. Opponent? Lightly-regarded Alabama-Birmingham, the No. 14 seed in the South Region and a 14-point underdog. Sparse, quiet crowd.
Naz Long swishes a three-pointer. Georges Niang and Monte Morris score. A triple from Niang. A pair of Jameel McKay free throws. Suddenly the Cyclones are rolling, up 12-2 five minutes in.
And with that, everything that had helped define Iowa State’s march in the last few weeks – from the atmosphere and motivation to the desperation and focus – started to disappear. Not by choice, mind you, but human nature placed the Cyclones in an unfamiliar comfort zone that made Fred Hoiberg’s squad anything but comfortable.
Yes, the Blazers battled back and led by three points at halftime. But Iowa State never did fall behind by more than a single possession, and led 55-51 with the ball and just two minutes remaining in regulation.
I doubt it crossed any Cyclone player’s mind at that point that a loss was coming, or even remotely possible. They’d let UAB hang around, sure, but the Blazers would eventually fold, right? ISU fans have witnessed plenty of gut-wrenching moments through the years, but this group of athletes – lacking perspective or exposure to such pain and suffering – had no reason to panic. They were still feeling invincible from a stretch of late-game heroics that had become their calling card.
It was a sense of security that proved to be false at the worse possible time. UAB made the hustle plays, caught a few breaks and executed to perfection in the last two minutes of a shocking 60-59 victory – the biggest upset in the Big Dance, statistically speaking, since 2012.
Complacency and assumptions are a potent March cocktail. Were the Cyclones intentionally lacking urgency? Of course not. But the heart-stopping rallies against NCAA Tournament teams Oklahoma (twice), Texas and Kansas likely helped contribute to Thursday’s heartbreaker, especially given the absence of everything that had fueled each victory.
Iowa State isn’t the first team to drop a postseason contest it had no business losing, and it won’t be the last. That’s the beauty – or the beast – of the one-and-done environment. Nothing is guaranteed. Conventional wisdom rarely applies. Looking ahead is never an option.
If a program waits too long to grasp the unwritten rules of this chaotic event, the dream usually ends abruptly. The Cyclones now must accept this nightmare as their new reality.
Few saw it coming, but the reasons are always there in retrospect. Iowa State players learned many valuable lessons on Thursday. Unfortunately, they’ll have to wait until next year to do something about it.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org