Iowa State’s objective Saturday wasn’t simply to defeat Kansas and keep pace in the Big 12 race, but to ensure there would be one.
As loud as it got in Hilton Coliseum as the Cyclones put the finishing touches on an 86-81 triumph, cheering echoes were detected throughout the Big 12. Every team with designs on winning the Big 12 and dethroning Kansas was uplifted on Saturday.
Even after a handful of games, this was starting to feel like the same old, same old, with the Jayhawks taking the lead at the first turn and never looking back, and it still might turn out that way.
But on this night, Kansas, the only team Iowa State hadn’t defeated at home in the last two seasons, went down before a crowd juiced by ESPN’s traveling studio show, “College GameDay.” Some 7,000 screamed their lungs out before noon and returned eight hours later for the real thing.
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The campus and program deserved the attention. In his fifth year, Fred Hoiberg has restored the magic in Ames, with each year better than the previous. Last year, a Sweet 16 run followed the Big 12 Tournament title.
The next step is a conference championship, and that task would have been made more difficult with a loss.
The Jayhawks entered the game as the league’s lone undefeated team. Their record was only 3-0, but the distance seemed greater. Nobody needed to be reminded that Kansas has run out of fingers and thumbs for rings. If there is an 11th straight, it will go on a toe.
A loss by the conference’s second-ranked team in the polls on its home floor to the team just ahead of it would have sent a chill through the rest of the conference. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg knew it.
“In order for us to compete with them, we had to win this game,” Hoiberg said.
If the Jayhawks’ amazing streak of titles is to continue, a few issues will need attention.
Too often, Kansas was caught flat-footed after a made basket, and Iowa State flew down the floor for an easy transition basket. “Hoi-ball,” is what guard Naz Long called it.
Offensive-minded Iowa State was going to get its perimeter points. Kansas knew that. The Cyclones dropped in nine three pointers, and the Jayhawks matched that total.
The biggest buckets occurred seconds after Kansas had scored. The official scoresheet credited Iowa State with 21 transition points. Data keepers on the KU bench had it at 27.
No matter the total, the points energized Iowa State and deflated Kansas. The Jayhawks worked their half-court sets for a good look and hoop. Seconds later the Cyclones answered. Points Iowa State didn’t have to earn.
KU coach Bill Self said he knew it was coming. Three were assigned to cover this action. “Two couldn’t seem to remember to get back,” Self said.
Perry Ellis played one of his better and more aggressive games this season with 19 points and 11 rebounds. But like all the Jayhawks, he couldn’t get to the free throw line. Kansas didn’t shoot its first from the stripe until 10:35 remained. Credit Self for putting that on his team’s shoulders and not the John Higgins-led crew.
Kansas would have benefited from the physical game of big man Cliff Alexander, but he played only 2 minutes of the second half, sentenced to Self’s doghouse for lack of effort.
Despite the concerns, the Jayhawks nearly found a way to pull off a stunning reversal. They trailed 72-58 with 5:19 remaining when the Cyclones started missing free throws and committing turnovers while Kansas started throwing in threes.
Frank Mason’s drive made it 82-79 with 30 seconds remaining, and Hilton grew quiet. The Jayhawks trailed by four with the ball, but Wayne Selden was called for a charge and the deal was sealed.
Iowa State was on its way to a victory, and others in the league had to feel better about things. Kansas State actually tops the Big 12 at 4-1, with Kansas and Iowa State at 3-1. Everybody else has at least two losses.
The race is on.