For the third time this season, the No. 1 team in the country went to the state of Iowa and fell.
In this case, it was a game that rescued a team’s season.
Northern Iowa has plummeted ever since beating No. 1 North Carolina in Cedar Falls last November. The Panthers have lost their way and will almost certainly have to win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament to make the NCAA field.
When Iowa defeated No. 1 Michigan State in Iowa City in late December, the Hawkeyes gained an important boost. Yet, their season did not stand in great peril at the time. Iowa’s victory confirmed what was already beginning to happen: The Hawkeyes were improving, and their win over Tom Izzo’s team cemented a consistent upward trend which remains in place today.
The Iowa-based team which absolutely had to beat a top-ranked opponent wasn’t UNI or the University of Iowa. It was Iowa State.
The Cyclones really needed to get back on track after a slow start to the Steve Prohm era in Ames.
Following an 11-1 non-conference mark, the Cyclones started Big 12 play 1-3 and looked like a candidate for “overrated team of the season” after falling at Texas. With a new coach but a veteran roster primed to make a run, ISU needed to beat a team with Oklahoma’s credentials and push itself back into the Big 12 race.
Mission accomplished. Iowa State is back in the hunt, just a game behind the Sooners.
The win was the first over a top-ranked team for Iowa State since 1957, when it beat Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain. To say that it was long overdue might be an understatement. In a season of parity, Oklahoma’s loss now marks the 14th time that a top-10 team has been beaten since the new year.
After leading Oklahoma most of the game in the first meeting (just over two weeks ago) and losing at the end, Iowa State was determined not to do the same on Monday night.
The ability to pull through came from the squad’s most experienced and tested leaders.
Monte Morris has become the heart and soul of the team at point guard. Deftly able to mix scoring and facilitating, Morris is averaging 15 points, 6.9 assists, and 4.2 rebounds per game. In the previous meeting against Oklahoma, Morris missed the final shot for Iowa State. This time, he got it right: His fadeaway 18-footer broke a late tie and carried the Cyclones to this essential win. Morris also knocked down game-sealing free throws in addition to his tiebreaking jumper.
Georges Niang also drained key shots against the Sooners. On every national award watch list this season, Niang is averaging 19.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Down the stretch on Monday night, Niang nailed a big 3-pointer just before the shot clock to give the Cyclones an eight-point lead in the second half.
Beyond the central contributions of its stars, Iowa State has gotten back to rebounding and establishing the paint. Having struggled at times on the boards, the Cyclones outrebounded the Sooners by 11 on Monday night, a central key in pushing past an opponent which found a long-distance shooting groove in Hilton Coliseum.
Oklahoma nailed 3-pointer after 3-pointer to stay in the game. The Sooners hit 10-of-16 from long range in the second half alone. Getting easy buckets in the paint and scoring inside with Niang and Jameel McKay are crucial for the Cyclones to stay in games of this sort. In the first half, Iowa State outscored Oklahoma 30-8 in the paint.
A team resourcefully won on a night when losing — thereby falling to 2-4 in the Big 12 — was just not an option.
The road for the Cyclones does not get much easier, as they get both Kansas and West Virginia in the next two weeks, but getting back to .500 in the conference and seemingly righting the ship has them well prepared to make the most of this very important season in the post-Fred Hoiberg era.