KANSAS CITY -- As Melvin Ejim, DeAndre Kane and a bandaged Georges Niang -- he took an elbow to the right eye -- walked off the podium, each player gave Fred Hoiberg a fist bump minutes after they’d punched Kansas in the mouth.
On Friday night, the Good Iowa State Cyclones showed up. That’s the group that might deserve a space in the Final Four of your office pool bracket. That’s the team that can turn the basketball court into a canvas with strokes of beautiful basketball that paint the picture of a program with a ceiling that keeps getting higher.
That’s also the squad that’s not always fortunate enough to see its three best players excel and avoid foul trouble on the same night. That’s when the Unpredictable Iowa State Cyclones arrive. That’s the team that lost four of five in January.
In the Sprint Center, however, Iowa State outplayed Kansas during a 94-83 win in the Big 12 tournament semifinals Friday to set up the program’s second conference tournament title game appearance, and first since the Cyclones won the championship in 2000.
At the final buzzer, the Cyclones weren’t sure whom they’d face, but they knew how they’d reached Saturday’s finale. This vital trio of talent -- Kane, Ejim and Niang -- had pushed the program into the title game.
“I think every day we play, we bring it,” Ejim said. “The chance of us three playing well is increasing and when guys that come off the bench, like Dustin [Hogue], are playing well, Monte [Morris] is playing, Daniel [Edozie] comes off and gives us some vital minutes, it shows how versatile this team is, how many weapons we have and how hard we are to beat when we're all clicking. We're doing a real good job and we're really rolling right now, and I think that it's just going to continue to go in that direction.”
With simple layups, Niang (game-high 25 points) hammered a Kansas interior defense that needs injured center Joel Embiid to return soon. Kane (20 points, six rebounds, six assists, two steals, 5-for-6 from the 3-point line) allowed the shots to come while the Jayhawks were conflicted by matchups against players who can all shoot and slash. Ejim, the Big 12 player of the year, had a quiet 19 points, five rebounds and two steals.
“We like the run and gun,” Kane said. “We like to get up and down the court. Anybody can bring it up.”
In all, the threesome collected 64 points. And they were also responsible for a defensive effort that limited Andrew Wiggins to a 7-for-21 outing and contained the Jayhawks to a 4-for-15 effort from the 3-point line.
It wasn’t just Ejim, Niang and Kane, though. It rarely is.
Morris and Hogue finished with double figures. And it’s always easier to win when you hit 11 3-pointers. The Cyclones scored 1.25 points per possession against the Jayhawks and they outscored them 41-18 outside the paint, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Ejim, Niang and Kane, however, were the conductors of the ensemble.
When that happens, Hilton Magic happens. Even in Kansas City.
“Well obviously, we play through those guys,” Hoiberg said. “They’re all guys that are capable of handling the load on the offensive end. All of them can create a mismatch out there. And I’ll tell you the thing I’ve been most impressed with is that they recognize mismatches out there on the floor.”
But talk to any Iowa State fan and they’ll tell you about their fears and nightmares. They’ll tell you what they’ve seen. They’ll talk about the times this season that the trio became a duo or an individual to the detriment of the program.
During that Jan. 13 loss to Kansas, Niang (4-for-20) went missing. Five days later, Kane went 3-for-12 in a loss to Texas. Ejim went 3-for-14 in a loss to Baylor in early March.
And those are just examples from some of the losses. There’s a distinct difference in Iowa State’s performances when only one of those leaders struggles.
And there’s an elevation that’s displayed when they’re all flowing.
“I think we're very good going forward when all three of us make great contributions,” said Niang, who sported a Band-Aid over his right eye after Kansas guard Brannen Greene accidentally elbowed him in the second half.
That was clear Friday. On that day, the Jayhawks couldn’t touch them.
And the truth is that few teams will Saturday or beyond if this continues.
It’s the “if” part, however, that worries the Cyclones faithful.