DES MOINES — Everything was pointing toward the best Iowa-Iowa State men’s basketball matchup — on paper, at least — in a quarter-century.
But Northern Iowa, in the opener of Saturday’s Big 4 Classic at Wells Fargo Arena, almost spoiled things. The Panthers played unbeaten, 17th-ranked Iowa State off its feet for 25 minutes in building a 49-31 lead before losing in overtime, 91-82.
The Cyclones had just 29 points in the first half. They came in averaging almost 92 per game.
“I was just trying to figure out what was going on in the first half,” ISU Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They threw the first punch and kept throwing ‘em. And we kept taking ‘em.
“They were well-prepared and I knew they would be. They came out and controlled the tempo.”
“Our body language was bad,” said Cyclone senior forward Melvin Ejim. “Especially me.”
Most teams would have been buried with that big a hole from which to dig. ISU went on a 23-2 run for a 54-51 lead.
But the Panthers persisted. They scored the next seven points. Then the Cyclones reasserted themselves and reclaimed a lead they held until 1.4 seconds remained in the second half.
Down 71-68 and with everyone in the arena knowing UNI needed a 3-pointer, the Cyclones didn’t foul center Seth Tuttle before he launched a shot for the tie. Tuttle banked in the shot, and overtime soon followed.
“I go back and forth,” Hoiberg said about strategy on fouling before a 3-pointer that can tie you is taken.
The other night, Hoiberg said, he heard San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich say he never fouls in that situation, so he bought into that. Now, he says, he may swing back the other way.
“I’m sick of seeing banked-in threes, I’ll tell you that,” he said, referring also to the one Kansas’ Ben McLemore made last season in Lawrence with: 01 left to send the ISU-KU game to overtime. Kansas went on to win.
This night, though, the Cyclones collected themselves in the overtime and outplayed the Panthers, even though sophomore forward Georges Niang was on the bench with five fouls and a career-high 22 points.
It was vintage ISU ball in the OT. The switch was set to “attack.” Iowa State got an offensive rebound while it led 79-75 with a little over two minutes left. Every coach in the world will tell you to run some clock. It’s what Hoiberg wanted. But Ejim was open.
Ejim had hit a 3-pointer on ISU’s previous possession. He was feeling it. He shot another trey. He made it.
“That’s one of those no-no-no-no-yes deals,” Hoiberg said. It might be more like a no-yes-yes-yes-yes when it’s a player like Ejim, who went from MIA in the first half with two points to MVP after that with 20 markers in the second half and overtime.
When Ejim swished that somewhat ill-advised shot, UNI was finally beaten. The way the Cyclones reacted after the final horn told you this game was a big deal to them, whether it was because they came from so far back or because ISU had lost its last three games against the Panthers.
The score of the Hawkeyes’ 83-66 win over Drake adequately tells the tale. The Bulldogs led 40-39 with 2:55 left in the first half. It was Iowa 49-40 at halftime.
"They're good, guys," Drake Coach Ray Giacoletti said. "They're a good basketball team. They're 10-deep and they come at you in waves."
This Big 4 extravaganza was a reminder Iowa and ISU ditched Drake and UNI from their previous yearly series to rid themselves of playing both teams each year, and getting on a bus to play one of the two each year.
Drake (6-2) is a better bunch of Bulldogs than we’ve seen recently.
UNI will always be tough to beat as long as Ben Jacobson is its coach. The Panthers’ 3-5 record is deceiving. They have played just one home game, and none since Nov. 11.
“It’ll happen for us,” said Jacobson, who never offers hollow expectations.
“I firmly believe we have a good basketball team.”
Soph Wes Washpun of Cedar Rapids Washington was the game’s best guard. He had 18 points and eight assists, and attacked, attacked, attacked. The Tennessee transfer will give UNI fans a lot of pleasure from now until 2016.
But try as they did, UNI and Drake couldn’t swipe any luster from this coming Friday’s battle of ranked teams in Hilton Coliseum.
"It was definitely tough to play there," Iowa senior guard Devyn Marble said about his one experience in Hilton, as a sophomore.
"But I know I've been in a lot of places. It's not going to bother me come game time. But it is tough to play there and get a win because they play behind their crowd just like we do at Carver."
After his team dismantled Drake in the second half, I asked Fran McCaffery to comment on Friday's game.
"We've got a game Monday," he said, and they do, at home against Fairleigh Dickinson. FDU (3-8) is coming off a 15-point loss at Stony Brook Wednesday that was followed by a 77-55 defeat at Princeton Saturday. Iowa State has no such obstacle in its path this week before the Hawkeyes come to town.
“Great game, great atmosphere,” Hoiberg said. “I know we’ll have our hands full. They’ve got a lot of length to give us a lot of problems.”
His own team has been more of a problem-giver than a problem-receiver. That was true even against UNI. Barely.
The Cyclones whooped on their way back toward their Wells Fargo dressing room, passing the Iowa team that was about to do business against Drake. They were two ships passing in the night, but on Friday they’ll collide head-on.