Georges Niang walked off the floor in the closing minutes with a bloody towel pressed tightly to his forehead, pumping his fist and riling up the Iowa State fans in the Sprint Center.
Turns out he was just jumpstarting the celebration.
Niang scored 25 points before leaving with that gash above his right eye, and the No. 16 Cyclones held on down the stretch to beat No. 10 Kansas 94-83 Friday night and reach their first Big 12 tournament title game since 2000.
"We love competing for championships," Niang said later, a bandage over his wound. "Coach says take it one day at a time, but the Big 12 championship is one day away from us."
DeAndre Kane had five 3-pointers and scored 20 points, and Big 12 player of the year Melvin Ejim added 19 points for the fourth-seeded Cyclones (25-8), who will play for just their second tournament title Saturday night against the winner of Texas-Baylor.
The victory for Iowa State represented its first in four tries against Kansas in the Big 12 tournament, and its first over the Jayhawks in Kansas City since March 10, 1996, when the schools were still part of the Big Eight. It also allowed Iowa State to match its 2001 team for the second-most wins in school history, trailing only the 32 wins piled up by the 2000 team.
Incidentally, it was that team that won the Cyclones’ only Big 12 tournament title.
"It’s a great win for us, for the fact it gives us confidence we can compete with anyone in the nation," Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg said. "It was good to finally get one of these after struggling to close out games against Kansas the past few years."
Relying on some hot outside shooting, Iowa State took charge in the second half, and then held on as the top-seeded Jayhawks (24-9) tried to make a late run to get back into the game.
Perry Ellis led Kansas with 30 points. Andrew Wiggins finished with 22.
The Jayhawks again were playing without 7-footer Joel Embiid, the league’s defensive player of the year, and his rim-protecting presence was sorely missed. The freshman has a stress fracture in his back and is likely out until at least the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
"Joel not being in there, he could probably guard Niang better," Kansas coach Bill Self said, "but I think it was more a collection of everybody rather than just one individual."
The Sprint Center was packed to the rafters with fans eager to see whether Iowa State could finally end its five-game losing streak against the Jayhawks, or whether Kansas could burnish what it hoped would be a resume worthy of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The teams got after it right from the tip, racing up and down the floor in what amounted to a series of 94-foot wind sprints. Iowa State got the better of it early, forging a 23-16 lead, but the Jayhawks countered with a brutally efficient 20-3 charge to take control.
Things got so intense that the normally placid Hoiberg was rung up with a technical foul after Kane appeared to be hammered on the way to the basket and no foul was called.
"I used a bad word," Hoiberg said sheepishly. "I’m not going to say I didn’t."
The Jayhawks’ lead was also short-lived. Kane started the comeback by converting a three-point play, Ejim and Niang went to work inside, and the Cyclones tied it 46-all in the closing minutes of the first half when Kane knocked down another shot from the corner.
Their hot perimeter shooting continued in the second half, when the Cyclones turned a 48-46 deficit into a 66-57 lead, the last points in the run on a deep ball from Naz Long.
By that point, Iowa State was 11 of 16 from the 3-point line.
"We were on our heels defensively throughout the game," Ellis said. "I felt in the first half we did a lot better. In the second half, we let too many straight-line drives to the basket."
The Jayhawks eventually extended their defense to the perimeter, and that’s when Iowa State started going to the basket again. Niang scored four straight baskets for Iowa State during one stretch that made it 81-72, and scored on three straight trips to make it 86-74.
The lead never got much smaller, even after Niang was whacked in the face during a scrum under the basket, prompting him to start the party for the Iowa State fans in attendance.
"We felt like we had these guys in the second half," Niang said. "We came out and threw the first punch and from there it was clear skies."