NEW YORK — In theory, the NCAA tournament is supposed to be played on neutral courts, at least after the first weekend.
That’s a myth, of course, sort of like the term “student-athlete.”
Never was that more evident than Friday night at Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t so much that Storrs, Conn., is 142 miles from Manhattan and Ames, Iowa is, 1,121 miles away. It wasn’t even the fact that the Connecticut fans outnumbered the Iowa State fans by at least two-to-one.
It was comfort.
There are plenty of statistics that will explain Connecticut’s 81-76 East Region semifinal victory over Iowa State. U-Conn. center DeAndre Daniels had a huge game with 27 points and 10 rebounds. The Huskies’ stellar back court of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright had 19 and 16, respectively, and when Iowa State tried to rally late, the entire Huskies team made free throws: 20 of 22 for the game.
The more telling numbers, though, might have been on the other side. Iowa State’s two best players, Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane, shot a combined 9 of 31 — many of the misses coming from short range on seemingly un-missable shots. To make matters worse, Kane, a 65 percent free throw shooter, was 2 of 9 from the line and the Cyclones, who were 70 percent free throw shooters in their first 35 games, were an awful 40 percent in their 36th and final game of the season
“Unfortunately, in the game of basketball there are nights when that basket looks big and sometimes it looks like a little thimble,” Iowa State Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Unfortunately, a few of those guys had that type of night tonight.”
Iowa State got back in the game after trailing 79-62 early in the second half, largely because the basket did look big to one player: Dustin Hogue, who was 15 of 19 from the field and scored 34 points. Maybe the fact that Hogue grew up in nearby Yonkers had something to do with his smooth performance. The rest of his teammates were a combined 17 of 50.
U-Conn. shot 52 percent for the game and seemed to make a tough shot whenever it absolutely needed a basket.
“We definitely feel comfortable in here,” said Napier, who was a freshman when the Huskies won five games at the Garden en route to the Big East tournament title in 2011. “We’ve played here a bunch of times and having our fans behind us is a huge help. Whenever we needed some energy, they gave it to us.”
Former U-Conn. Coach Jim Calhoun liked to call this building his team’s second home. After all, the Huskies won seven Big East tournament championships here under Calhoun between 1990 and 2011. Even though Connecticut was banned from its last Big East tournament because of academic probation in 2013, everyone connected to the program knows the place like, well, home.
On Friday, U-Conn. played here for the 112th time. Iowa State did so for the fourth time — the first time since 2004, when most of its current players were still learning how to dribble with their off-hand.
Hoiberg, whose nickname in Ames is “The Mayor,” looks and sounds like a young politician, which may explain why his answer was inexact when the subject of his team’s inability to make seemingly easy shots for most of 30 minutes came up
“We did get to the rim a lot in those first few minutes,” he said. “We just uncharacteristically missed quite a few of those. I don’t know if it was intimidation. I don’t what it was.”
There’s little doubt that part of it was the absence of 6-foot-7, 240-pound sophomore Georges Niang, the Cyclones’ third-leading scorer (16.7) and fourth-leading rebounder (4.5). Niang broke his foot in Iowa State’s first-round victory over North Carolina Central, ending his sophomore season. There’s little doubt that his presence could have made a difference at both ends of the court. Not only did his teammates struggle to score inside, but they could not keep Connecticut’s guards out of the lane most of the night. Hoiberg didn’t use Niang’s absence as an excuse.
“We played without him and were able to beat North Carolina,” Hoiberg said. “I thought we could have made the adjustment to playing without him because we did it well in that game.”
Hoiberg is only 41, so he may not remember that it was former North Carolina Coach Dean Smith who always said: “You can play one great game without a key player. Two is much harder.”
Iowa State’s one great game was its victory over Smith’s former team this past Sunday. On Friday, in the first NCAA tournament game ever played in this building — the last time the tournament was here in 1961, Madison Square Garden was still at 50th street and Broadway — the Cyclones’ first and last lead was 3-2 with 18 minutes 43 seconds left in the first half. The last tie was 12-12. U-Conn. led the last 33 minutes of the game. The closest Iowa State got was 67-63 with 2:19 left, but Niels Giffey answered with a three-pointer to stretch the margin to seven, and the scalping price for tickets to Sunday’s region final started to go through the roof.
Like Hoiberg, U-Conn. Coach Kevin Ollie is 41 and had a lengthy NBA career before getting into coaching. He took over in the fall of 2012 under difficult circumstances: Calhoun retired because of ongoing health issues and Ollie took over a team that was banned from both the Big East tournament and the NCAA tournament because of a horrific graduation rate (8 percent).
Both Hoiberg and Ollie are graduates of the schools they coach. Hoiberg played for Johnny Orr, who passed away in December. Ollie played for Calhoun, who sat six rows behind the U-Conn. bench on Friday, arms folded exactly the way he used to fold them during his 26 seasons in Storrs. As Ollie came off the court, the first person to greet him as he reached the tunnel was Calhoun.
When the Big East broke apart a year ago, Connecticut was left behind. It was then rebuffed by the ACC and the Big Ten and was forced to land in what is now the American Athletic Conference, a strange conglomeration that includes teams like Houston, SMU, Memphis and Central Florida. At the moment it includes Louisville, but not for long — the Cardinals will flee from the AAC to the ACC next season.
U-Conn. will continue in the AAC. It will also likely continue to win a lot of basketball games. If it wins one more on Sunday, it will be back in the Final Four. That would mean a trip to Dallas — home of fellow AAC member SMU.
More home cooking for the Huskies. But nothing like what they enjoyed on Friday night.
For more by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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