Eric Heft’s Cyclone NCAA Tournament Memories


March Madness is here, and for a school-record fourth-straight season, Iowa State is fortunate to be a part of the grand spectacle.

Iowa State has a rich tradition in men’s hoops. For the 16th time since 1985, the Cyclones are dancing. ISU has played in a total of 32 NCAA Tournament games, owning a .500 record at 16-16.

If you are looking for someone to give you a thorough perspective of ISU in the NCAA Tournament, look no further than Eric Heft. Heft is probably the only person who has witnessed all 30 Cyclone NCAA Tournament games since 1985.

The former Cyclone star on the hardwood turned radio broadcaster has a keen knowledge of the history of ISU in the NCAA Tournament, sitting courtside for virtually all of them. He shared his thoughts and memories with us recently on ISU’s greatest games, plays and moments in the Big Dance.

Top Cyclone NCAA Tournament Wins

1. No. 7 Iowa State Beats No. 2 Michigan, 72-69 to advance to Sweet Sixteen (1986)
Setting the Stage
This game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis had tremendous hype. Iowa State head coach Johnny Orr was going against his former school in Michigan, a place where he was the head coach for 12 seasons. His former assistant, Bill Frieder, succeeded Orr as the Wolverine head coach. Michigan was the Big Ten champs with loads of talent, including players like Roy Tarpley, Gary Grant, Richard Rellford and Glen Rice.

Heft Memories
“A lot of things made that game so special. One of them simply was it was Johnny (Orr) vs. Michigan. Johnny was the winningest coach in Michigan history. It was unbelievable, the feeling around it.  Michigan was really good, and the size that they had compared to our team was off the charts. ISU had the ability to find a way to win it. Coming down the stretch, I’ve heard Pete’s (Taylor) call a number of times when (Jeff) Hornacek found Elmer (Robinson) for the dunk.  That kind of gave them the cushion that they needed to win it in the end. I still get goose bumps when I hear that, and I was sitting right next to him when he made the call. It was tremendous. I was just so happy for Iowa State, but just as every bit as happy for Johnny personally, because of how much that game meant to him.”

Iowa State's David Moss guards Michigan's Roy Tarpley as Gary Thompkins looks on. ISU upset the Wolverines, 72-69.

Iowa State’s David Moss guards Michigan’s Roy Tarpley as Gary Thompkins looks on. ISU upset the Wolverines, 72-69.

2. No. 2 Iowa State Beats No. 6 UCLA, 80-56 to advance to Elite Eight (2000)
Setting the Stage
Although UCLA was the sixth-seed, there wasn’t a hotter team in the NCAA Tournament when the Bruins and Cyclones met at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. The Bruins destroyed their first two opponents, including a 105-70 beat down of third-seeded Maryland. UCLA was a confident bunch heading into the Regional, but so were the Cyclones. Led by All-Americans Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley, ISU was ready. Tinsley’s former AAU team defeated a team a couple of Bruins were members of at the national tournament. He wore his AAU jersey around at the interview/practice sessions as a reminder. He delivered.

Heft Memories
“They (UCLA) were the hottest team by all of the pundits in the country. Even though they were a six seed, they were the team that everyone was picking to get to finals, or at least to the Final Four. Going into that game, I kind of bought into it. I didn’t know if Iowa State was going to be able to beat them. Just the way Jamaal Tinsley, Marcus Fizer, Mike Nurse and everyone on that team just took it to them- it was absolute destruction. It was unbelievable to know that you were going to have the chance two days later to play to go to the Final Four. It was an incredible feeling.”

Marcus Fizer was a key player in ISU's 80-56 victory over UCLA in 2000.

Marcus Fizer was a key player in ISU’s 80-56 victory over UCLA in 2000.

3. No. 3 Iowa State Beats No. 6 North Carolina, 85-83 to advance to Sweet Sixteen (2014)
Setting the Stage
Iowa State had faced national power North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament on two previous occasions only to come up short. This game was going to be difficult as well because the Cyclones were without the services of one of their best players in Georges Niang, who broke his foot in the in the second round win over North Carolina Central. In a high-scoring affair, All-American DeAndre Kane came through in the clutch with a last-second layup to put ISU back in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2000.

Heft Memories
“You’re playing one of the blue bloods (North Carolina) without one of the most indispensable players that we had in Georges Niang. I’m not sure if he was our best player, but he was one of the main guys for sure. He was a guy that I thought North Carolina couldn’t matchup with. Just the way Iowa State hung in there, and had to come from behind later in the game, was incredible. And then DeAndre Kane making the play at the end was unbelievable. They (UNC) wanted to get the ball out of his hands, but he was just so strong and moved his way to the basket. To go on to the Sweet 16 after overcoming a crippling injury, that was awesome.”

DeAndre Kane with the game-winning lay-up in the closing seconds of the Iowa State-North Carolina game in 2014.

DeAndre Kane with the game-winning lay-up in the closing seconds of the Iowa State-North Carolina game in 2014.

Top Performances

1. Kelvin Cato vs. Illinois State in 1997
Setting the Stage
One could argue that senior center Kelvin Cato posted the greatest all-around game by a Cyclone in NCAA Tournament history against Illinois State in 1997. The future NBAer tallied a career-high 29 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked a Midwest Region-record eight shots in ISU’s 69-57 victory. It was an absolute dominating performance.

Heft Memories
“I remember we were down 15-4 or something like that. I just remember when we started to get it to Cato on the block is when we started to get back into the game. On one play, he just backed down and had a turn-around dunk over their center. After that two-handed slam I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He was incredible. He completely turned the fortune of that game, without question.”

Kelvin Cato2

Kelvin Cato dunks home two of his career-high 29 points in ISU’s 69-57 win over Illinois State in 1997.

2. Dedric Willoughby vs. UCLA in 1997
Setting the Stage
Dedric Willoughby almost single-handily led the Cyclones to an Elite Eight appearance with his incredible performance vs. UCLA in 1997. ISU lost a heartbreaker, 74-73, in overtime when Cameron Dollar scored a high-arcing lay-up over the outstretched arms of Kelvin Cato at the buzzer. Despite the loss, Willoughby was phenomenal. The senior All-American tied the school record for most points in a NCAA Tournament game with 34 (Lafester Rhodes, Dustin Hogue) and drilled eight 3-pointers, the most by a Cyclone in the NCAA Tournament.

Heft Memories
“He was unbelievable. Dedric hit so many big shots in that game. His performance was I think the best I’ve ever seen by a Cyclone. I know that it was the most a Cyclone ever scored in the NCAA Tournament. That’s a game where you’re playing against a really good team, and one guy is taking control. They were doing everything they could to keep him from getting the ball, but he moved so well without the ball and he could catch and shoot deep threes.”

Top Plays

1. Jeff Hornacek sinks buzzer-beater to defeat Miami (Ohio) in 1986
Setting the Stage
Buzzer-beaters are always great. They are even better in the postseason. With the final possession in a tie game in overtime (79-79), Johnny Orr called the play he always used for the final shot. It involved a baseline screen for Jeff Hornacek. The goal was to get him the ball for a jump shot in between the key and corner. The play worked to perfection, as Hornacek caught the ball in stride and nailed a 26-footer as time expired to give ISU the 81-79 victory.

Heft Memories
“I think we kind of forget it sometimes, but this was ISU’s first NCAA Tournament win in 42 years. Jeff Hornacek hitting that bomb in overtime to give you a chance to play Michigan, and to get that first tournament win in so many years, it was awesome. Sometimes I think that first one for a program might be the hardest. One of the things that people forget is that even though Hornacek was one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA during his career, he wasn’t a great perimeter shooter in college. That’s really something that people forget, but some guys are clutch, and obviously Hornacek was as clutch as they come. He was an incredible player and point guard for us, and an incredible two-guard in the NBA.”

2. Royce White steal and dunk vs. Kentucky in 2012
Setting the Stage
Kentucky’s 2012 NCAA championship team was formidable to say the least. Of the seven players that played in the game for the Wildcats, six of them made the NBA (the only player to appear in the game who has not played in the NBA was Kyle Wiltjer, who is currently a senior All-American at Gonzaga). ISU sophomore Royce White had his coming out party that week. He had 15 points and 13 rebounds in ISU’s win over defending champion UConn in the second round and then posted 23 points and nine rebounds against No. 1 Kentucky. A play White made against NBA All-Star Anthony Davis stood out for Heft.

Heft Memories
“One of my favorite memories was Anthony Davis, the best player in college basketball, being guarded by Royce White on the baseline in Louisville. Royce strips the ball from him, dribbles through three All-Americans and goes coast-to-coast for a slam dunk early in the game. That was one of the most incredible plays. Granted it (the game) didn’t have the outcome we wanted, but if you want to talk about one individual play that just epitomized how good Royce was, I think that was it.”

About Mike Green

I'm in my 25th year working in the Athletics Communications office at Iowa State and in my seventh year as Assistant Athletics Director for Communications. My passion has always been ISU Athletics and the seed was planted by my father, Ken, who was an All-Big Eight pitcher for Iowa State in 1960. I graduated from UNI in 1993, where I was a two-year letterwinner on the golf team, and received my master's at ISU in 1997. I've covered volleyball, wrestling, baseball, golf, football and men's basketball at ISU, including 13 seasons as the men's hoops contact. It's an honor to be the football contact for Coach Campbell and the Cyclones. I've got stories to tell, and I love telling them.
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