AMES, Iowa — Iowa State is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000 because it’s a resilient bunch that doesn’t shrink from the moment.
No one epitomizes the mental toughness of these Cyclones more than sophomore Naz Long, whose ability to shake off adversity and knock down big shots is a huge reason why they’re still playing.
Long’s clutch shooting kept Iowa State (28-7) alive more than once in the regular season, and lately he’s saved the Cyclones so often that some fans have taken to calling him “3sus.”
“I’ve said this all along with Naz. You never have to worry about Naz and confidence,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s not afraid to step up and take shots — whether he’s made his last five or he’s missed his last five.”
Long has made his last five when it’s mattered the most. He’s 5 of 5 from 3-point range in the final five minutes of Big 12 and NCAA tournament games so far.
Long’s latest crucial 3 came with 50 seconds left Sunday against North Carolina, tying it at 81 and setting the stage for DeAndre Kane’s last-second layup — which put Iowa State in its first regional semifinal in 14 years.
Long and the Cyclones face Connecticut (28-8) on Friday night in New York.
“That dude catches the ball, you better watch out,” Iowa State forward Melvin Ejim said.
That wasn’t always the case.
Long rarely played as a freshman, averaging just 1.8 points a game as the Cyclones leaned on a senior-laden backcourt to reach the third round of the NCAA tournament.
He could have easily been in the same situation this season.
The arrival of Kane, a highly regarded transfer from Marshall, and a pair of impressive freshmen guards in Monte Morris and Matt Thomas left Long again fighting for minutes.
But Long looked good enough in fall practice to earn a starting nod for the opener in place of Ejim, who had been battling a minor injury. Long responded with a team-high 26 points, and his eight 3s foreshadowed the rest of his season.
So did the next game.
Long had just five points, starting a season-long trend in which he strung together back-to-back double-digits scoring nights just once.
But Long is also the rare player who can be accurately described as both inconsistent and spectacular.
Hoiberg toyed with the idea of making Long a permanent starter early in Big 12 play. But he was just 4-of-17 shooting in four starts and got benched in favor of Morris.
Long responded with the first of many “season-saving” shots for the Cyclones.
Long drilled a 3 that pushed Iowa State’s game at Oklahoma State into triple overtime on Feb. 3, and the Cyclones wound up surviving 98-97.
Long forced the Cowboys into overtime again in the regular-season finale in Ames on a 30-footer at the buzzer. Iowa State found its momentum in OT and carried it all the way to Kansas City and the Big 12 tournament.
Long then hit a 3 with 2:53 left to give Iowa State a lead it would not relinquish against K-State. He did the same with 3:45 to go as Iowa State rallied from 10 down to beat Baylor in the conference title game.
Long credits his midseason resurgence to Hoiberg, a former standout shooter in the NBA who urged Long to get his footwork back on track.
“I’ve got to play defense and I’ve got to knock down shots. There’s not much more to worry about,” Long said. “If I get the ball in my hands, I’m going to shoot the shot. If it goes in, it goes in. I just know that when my opportunity comes, if I need to shoot a shot I need to make it.”
Long still might not start against the Huskies because Daniel Edozie gives Iowa State some size in the post that it lost when forward Georges Niang broke his foot.
But Long will be on the floor if the game is tight late, and he won’t be scared to take a big shot either.
“The mentality you have to have as a shooter is that you’re going to go through high and lows, up and downs. But you always think the next one is going down, and that’s definitely what Naz has in his mind,” Hoiberg said.