The final buzzer sounded and Iowa State’s Jameel McKay wasn’t sure what to do. So he did nothing but stand there, watching Alabama-Birmingham celebrate the first upset of the NCAA Tournament.
“It didn’t hit me what happened,” McKay said. “I was in complete shock.”
A few moments earlier, Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg told his team the Blazers’ 60-59 triumph was “as tough a loss as I ever dealt with.”
Iowa State had been living dangerously, falling behind its last five opponents by double digits before staging furious rallies. Four of those victories came against NCAA Tournament teams. As much as the Cyclones desired not to dig a trench, they were comforted by their resiliency.
But Thursday’s game felt different as Iowa State fell behind by three at halftime. Offensively, Iowa State never came around. At several points in the second half, the Cyclones took a small lead, got the ball back and missed a three-pointer.
Not putting any distance between themselves and UAB kept the Blazers alive and confident. The players had shown UAB coach Jerod Haase before the game where they stood in their belief.
Before departing the team hotel that morning, Haase had each player relate him his confidence level on a grease-board. Scale of one to 10: nervous was one; cocky was 10.
Every player said six or seven.
“That’s exactly where we want to be,” Haase told them.
After all, this was a 15-loss UAB team taking on the Big 12 Tournament champion that was additionally motivated by last year’s bounce-out in the Sweet 16 after Georges Niang broke a bone in his foot in the NCAA opener. A sense of purpose seemed to be driving these Cyclones.
What wasn’t working on Thursday was rebounding. Alabama-Birmingham devastated Iowa State in that department, 52-37, a season-high total by a Cyclones opponent. Neither team shot well. But UAB was much better after its misses.
If there was a second-thought moment for Hoiberg, it came in the first half. Niang had gotten off to a fast start, scoring seven points in the first 10 minutes. But he collected his second foul and spent the final 9½ minutes on the bench.
Would Niang have made a difference with some spot duty before halftime? He never found a rhythm in the second half. The biggest misses occurred after he’d given Iowa State a 55-51 lead on a pair of free throws with three minutes remaining.
The Cyclones got the ball back on a steal and went inside to Niang, but his shot was deflected by UAB’s William Lee. Iowa State got it back with another chance to pad a four-point lead, but Niang missed a close-range shot.
The Blazers then started hitting big shots and the program that has not a single player with NCAA Tournament experience started doing everything right at the most important moments.
Haase had seen it before. This is his 18th tournament as a coach or player at Kansas and North Carolina. He was part of national-title teams and also a figure in one of the most devastating locker rooms ever used for an NCAA Tournament, the one the Jayhawks occupied in 1997 after falling to Arizona in the Sweet 16.
That Kansas team spent all season ranked first and had lost one game heading into the postseason. The postgame locker-room scene was filled with players, towels draped over their heads, fighting back tears.
Thursday, Haase entered a joyous locker room, that of an upset winner in its first foray into March Madness.
“Four or five guys on our team didn’t realize a month ago that the Conference USA tournament champion got an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament,” Haase said. “I bet a third of our team had never watched the selection show.
“So we are young and experienced.”
They’re also advancing.