Late Friday night, with Georges Niang's broken foot prognosis official, profound sadness overtook Iowa State players. And Sunday, before the Cyclones played North Carolina, Niang found himself away from his teammates in the locker room and couldn't hold back his emotions.
But that was the extent of the sorrow. For a team that lost such an invaluable component at such an inopportune time, Iowa State players have been stoic, exhibiting poise in the midst of a season-ending injury that seriously threatened to abruptly end their season.
BRACKET BRIEFING: 25 best players in the Sweet 16
One of the hallmarks of third-seeded Iowa State has been coach Fred Hoiberg's deft ability in exploiting on-court mismatches. But the true calling card for these undersized – and now undermanned – Cyclones can't be found in a box score.
"You can count us out in athleticism against teams," assistant Cornell Mann told USA TODAY Sports. "You can count us out because of size. You can count us out in percentages. Toughness is not a stat, but it's a huge part of the game. For us, it is the biggest part of the game. It is who these guys are."
In the waning moments of tight games, the Cyclones are rarely frazzled, always appearing cool and composed, taking cues from their nearly emotionless coach whose pulse never seems to rise above 45.
"We have been hitting adversity all year," senior point guard DeAndre Kane said. "This team is relentless. We fight like soldiers. We are brothers, man."
Mann said the team's physical and especially mental toughness can't necessarily be detected all the time in practice. But coaches have seen it all season when the Cyclones take the court against opponents.
CELEBRATION : Fred Hoiberg's awful dance moves
They saw it early in the season when senior Melvin Ejim missed the first two games with an injury and made his season debut by scoring 22 points in a tone-setting victory against Michigan, last season's national runner-up.
They saw it in mid-January when Iowa State's first loss of the season – at Oklahoma – was made worse by the ankle sprain Kane suffered in the closing seconds. Despite leaving Norman, Okla., on crutches, Kane, the fiercest competitor Niang says he's ever been around, took the court two days later and played 37 minutes in a home loss to Kansas.
They saw in the Big 12 championship after Iowa State missed its first 13 shots from the floor against Baylor. The Cyclones never panicked. And with five minutes left in the half, Baylor was the team that was unraveling and couldn't get to halftime fast enough. Iowa State won by nine points.
Hoiberg said the team has three particularly strong leaders in Kane, Ejim and Niang, and that has enabled the Cyclones to fight adversity well all season.
"As a team, we are built to last," Mann said. "Those guys, they don't get rattled. So it's easier for the other players not to get rattled. Toughness can be contagious, and in this case it is."
BRACKET SIMULATION: Odds for each Sweet 16 teams
Much of the country witnessed it Sunday in a third-round NCAA tournament game few outsiders thought Iowa State could win without Niang, a vocal leader and significant contributor in every statistical category. But there were the Cyclones, after trailing by eight points with under four minutes to play, with the ball in the hands of the player they trust the most as the final seconds evaporated.
Kane's winning drive to the basket and layup against North Carolina lifted Iowa State to its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2000. The Cyclones will play seventh-seeded UConn in Friday's East Region semifinals at Madison Square Garden. And this Sweet 16 berth is a testament to the toughness and resolve of this group.
"Coach (Dean) Smith used to always say he hated to play somebody when they lost one of their very important players the first game because everybody is going to be so emotionally into it," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "And I think they were … They pulled together."
Just how big was the loss of Niang? Hoiberg says he always has a play card. One side has a large section for Kane and a small section for shooters. The entire other side of the card is filled with plays for Niang.
"DeAndre is right," Hoiberg said. "When we need a basket, he (Niang) is usually the guy we go to. He has been our Mariano Rivera. He has been our closer all throughout this season."
But without its closer, Iowa State still made a remarkable 9 of its last 10 field goal attempts in the 85-83 victory over sixth-seeded North Carolina.
"These guys all know our system," Hoiberg said. "The one positive is we've got 1,000 plays in our bank … These guys know I believe in them. These players have each other's backs. They've shown that all year in the way they have fought adversity and handled tough situations."
It's both a physical and mental toughness. When Iowa State trailed by eight, Dustin Hogue said, he and Ejim had a defensive mix up, but there were no fingers pointed. Everyone moved on to the next play, focusing on the current possession.
Niang said assistant Doc Sadler always pushes players in practice by asking them, "Who is going to be tougher? How tough are you going to be?"
Niang, who continues to provide vocal leadership and inspiring words for his teammates, thought about Sadler's message and simply said, "It's paying off."