- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2016

CHICAGO — Out on West Madison Street, Iowa State fans packed the Billy Goat Tavern just up the road from the United Center before Friday night’s tipoff. The greasy spoon is famous as a no-frills establishment thrust into pop culture by a 1978 Saturday Night Live skit featuring John Belushi as the gruff order taker at the counter. The hungry would ask for one thing, and Belushi would repeatedly try to push a cheeseburger on them, explaining there were no other options.

Earlier in the day at Virginia’s team hotel, another hard-edged voice from years past pulled his son aside and took a similar direct approach. Longtime college coach Dick Bennett showed for Virginia’s Sweet 16 game, which surprised his son, Tony, who also operates as the Cavaliers’ coach. When Dick met with Tony before the Cavaliers’ pregame meal, he pondered what advice his father would have bestowed. Tony Bennett’s grandfather was a steelworker of modest education who died almost 20 years to the day prior.

“He’d tell you, don’t tiptoe into this one,” Dick said.

Virginia amplified that advice. In front of a crowd swooning over No. 4 seed Iowa State, the Cavaliers began the game with a precise and crushing 17-3 run. By the end, the 84-71 win by top-seeded Virginia moves it into the Elite Eight for the first time since 1995. It will play upstart and fellow ACC entrant Syracuse on Sunday for an opportunity to go to the Final Four in Houston next week. Virginia won the only game between the two this season 73-65.

Ames, Iowa is about a five-hour drive from Chicago. Some would contend it’s less, if you’re not caught in crosstown traffic on the way through Des Moines en route to Interstate 80 to go East. During pregame introductions, it seemed most of the 61,000 people housed in Ames had decided to pile into the car and spend a hopeful weekend in Chicago.

They came to watch their Cyclones, a team anchored in offense and built on Georges Niang. He was among the old heads that have been so potent in the tournament. Like Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon, and Kansas’ Perry Ellis, Niang is a well-worn senior. He’s also a defensive conundrum who veers to the rim at odd angles with long steps.

SEE ALSO: Virginia will try to stop Michael Gbinije, who is among those who got away

The roars from Iowa State fans that accompanied introductions drooped to a murmur following Virginia’s start. The Cavaliers’ fan grouping, mostly placed behind their bench, cheered at the stunning early lead which rocketed into double-digits less than four minutes into the game. It hit 17 midway through the first half, complicating any comeback attempt.

Because of Virginia’s preference to choke the shot clock on offense, a double-digit lead so early in the game has added potency. The Cavaliers want to play long possessions and not turn the ball over, then defensively restrict, congest and repeat. Iowa State was desperate for a more rapid tempo in the game. Virginia would not allow it. Brogdon, London Perrantes and Devon Hall combined for a pristine 21 assists and zero turnovers.

“Taking care of the ball is huge for us, especially against a team like that,” Perrantes said. “We don’t want any live ball turnovers.”

The ongoing Mike Tobey Renaissance was also beneficial. Like in the opening round against Hampton, Tobey played for a long stretch alongside power forward/center/hair guru Anthony Gill. Also like against Hampton, the duo dominated inside. Combined, they were 16 for 22 from the field. Tobey scored 18 points. Gill had a season-high 23. Tobey is shooting 73.9 percent in three tournament games. Gill is shooting 71.9 percent. They have been long-armed wrecking balls.

“When Mike comes out and he’s aggressive and confident and plays like that, the way he’s been playing, we’re another level team,” Brogdon said.

In the first half, the Cyclones took a risk. Niang received his second foul with 12:46 to play. He came out. A minute later, Darius Thompson threw a behind-the-back pass on the break to Isaiah Wilkins for a dunk. Down 26-9, Cyclones coach Steve Prohm put Niang back in. He survived until the half with two fouls. That put Niang on his way to scoring 30 points in the game, the most by a Virginia opponent in the NCAA tournament since Khalid Reeves scored 30 in 1994.

“I think he may be the most unique player I’ve ever guarded in my life,” Wilkins said.

Niang’s punishment for fouling did not arrive until the second half, when he reached his hand up to defend driving Marial Shayok. The whistle blew. Niang jumped, screamed, then flashed four fingers. “That’s four!” he yelled at no one in particular. Prohm knew with 13:10 to play in the game, Niang had to come off. The Virginia lead was down to eight, but his star was marooned on the bench with a towel over his left shoulder.

“Obviously that was frustrating, but this is do or die, win or go home, so I really just had to figure out a way to get through it,” Niang said.

He came back to the floor with 9:02 to play. The Virginia lead had moved to 15 points; a re-establishment of its game-opening run. Iowa State tried to press, it tried to change the pace, it tried to rattle. None of it worked.

“To get to a Sweet 16 is no small thing,” Bennett said. “To get into the NCAA tournament, our program is still establishing itself. We’re not where [North] Carolina and Duke and some of these are. We’re scratching and clawing and thankful for everything that comes our way, and you just show up and you keep knocking.”

Virginia has 89 wins in the last three seasons, which sets a program record. No, it’s not North Carolina or Duke yet. But, Friday night, it was a force after starting all the way in, from the toes up.

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