DENVER — Iowa State is headed for the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years and the fifth time in program history.
Georges Niang had 28, six rebounds and three assists to lead the Cyclones past upstart Arkansas-Little Rock 78-61 Saturday at the Pepsi Center in Denver. Niang also had 28 points, six rebounds and three assists in Thursday’s 94-81 win over 13-seed Iona.
“Georges is just a special person. He’s done so much for this school,” first-year Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. “Your best players have to play great in March in big moments. The last two games, he’s been unbelievable."
Niang was 10-of-17 from the floor, 3-of-5 from behind the 3-point arc and made all three of his free throws.
“This is what you work for,” he said. “Being a little kid, you dream about being in situations like this. To have a chance to do it, I think it’s really cool."
Iowa State (23-11) will face top-seeded Virginia (28-7) in the Midwest Regional semifinal round Friday in Chicago. Virginia held off Butler for a 77-69 victory Saturday.
“That’s the best team we’ve played all year,” Little Rock coach Chris Beard said of the Cyclones. “We played a tough schedule, so when I tell you they’re the best team we’ve played, it should have some merit. I believe they can win the regional and play in Houston (for the Final Four)."
In Saturday’s win, Matt Thomas finished with 16 points — going 4-of-8 from deep — Abdel Nader had nine and Deonte Burton eight. Jameel McKay had a game-high 10 rebounds to go along with six points.
The Cyclones were 11-of-21 from the 3-point line and were 30-of-53 (57 percent) overall from the floor. They also assisted on half of their baskets, led by five from Monte Morris.
“We’ve got a really good team,” Prohm said. “I think we showed that. I told them after the game that I hope this isn’t their biggest moment. I want bigger moments for them in life and in basketball going forward. There are more special things in store for this team."
Robert Woods led the Trojans with 18 points. Morris helped shut down Josh Hagins, who had 31 in Little Rock’s double-overtime upset win over fifth-seeded Purdue on Thursday. He had just eight in Saturday’s loss.
“I think Monte personally did an unbelievable job (on Hagins),” Thomas said. “We had seen him will his team to win against Purdue, so we knew he was capable. Monte did a great job on a really good player."
The victory helped make last year’s 61-60 upset loss to UAB in the opening round at Louisville at distant memory.
“This is sweet, for sure,” said Niang, who was injured during Iowa State’s 2014 Sweet 16 run. “We want to go further. We want bigger things for ourselves, so we’re going to keep fighting."
The Cyclones jumped out to a 13-5 lead, but Little Rock fought back to within two moments later.
That’s when Niang got going. He hit a jump shot and a 3 to push the lead back to 18-11.
Leading just 26-24 with 5:09 left in the first half, Niang led another run. After a 3-pointer, a layup, an alley-oop assist to McKay, another layup and another 3, Iowa State was up 34-24.
Two Burton free throws and a Morris layup helped the Cyclones close the half on a 14-4 run for a 40-28 lead at the break.
“(The strong start) was huge for us,” Thomas said. “When knew what (Little Rock) was capable of. Coming into the game, we wanted to dictate tempo and getting off to the good lead was crucial for us."
In the first 20 minutes, Niang had 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting. He hit all three of his 3-point attempts before the break.
The Cyclones started to break things open early in the second half. A Thomas 18-footer, a McKay putback and a beautiful spinning baseline jumper from Nader put Iowa State 46-33 ahead with under 16 minutes to go.
Niang opened his second-half scoring on a floater that made the run 6-0 for the Cyclones’ largest lead of the evening at 48-33. Hallice Cook got into the action with a 3-pointer on an assist from McKay to extend the advantage to 51-33 with 13:40 remaining.
Niang hit two free throws to give Iowa State a 53-33 lead — its largest of the game — with 13:02 to go. In doing so, Niang became the school’s all-time second-leading scorer with 2,191 points, behind only Jeff Grayer.
Little Rock (30-5) got within 65-52 with 3:49 on the clock after back-to-back Hagins 3-point shots. Unlike Thursday’s improbable 14-point comeback against Purdue, the Cyclones closed strong and expelled Cinderella from the ball.