AMES — As West Virginia mounted a spirited but ultimately failed rally, Iowa State point guard Monté Morris winced from his seat on the sidelines.
The NCAA’s five-star general in terms of assist-to-turnover ratio had fouled out with 54 seconds left in the No. 14 Cyclones’ tense 74-72 win on January 10 at Morgantown.
And for a guy nicknamed “Big Time,” being bench-bound for those dozens of free throw-filled crunch time seconds amounted to psychological torture.
“It was a big-time game,” said Morris, who dealt out six assists to one turnover in ISU’s lone Big 12 road win of the season that night. “A lot of emotions in that game. I feel like there was a lot of fouling, on their end and on our end. I got a little antsy with my hands but I learned from it.”
Next lesson: Saturday’s 3 p.m. rematch (ESPN2) with the No. 21 Mountaineers (18-5, 7-4) at Hilton Coliseum.
The Cyclones (17-6, 7-4) cradle a 20-game home win streak and would stand alone in third place in the conference standings if they can complete a regular season sweep of West Virginia, which leads the nation in steals per game (12.1), turnover margin (plus-8.8) and offensive rebounds per game (17.2).
“We were good and bad against (the Mountaineers’ press) the first time,” said ISU coach Fred Hoiberg, whose team has won 13 straight home games against conference opponents. “We had stretches where we broke the press and got the ball down the floor and got some good high percentage opportunities. We also turned it over — there was one stretch we turned it over four straight times. Those are the types of stretches you have to try to avoid against this West Virginia team. You just have to play sound. You have to play smart. You have to keep your spacing on the break and you have to try to attack and get easy ones on the backside of it.”
Those uncontested looks can come from the paint or the 3-point line.
Morris helped create daylight early in the previous matchup, dishing to Georges Niang for a 3-pointer that put the Cyclones ahead, 18-15. Two more assists from Dustin Hogue later, Morris found Niang for a short jumper that gave ISU a 31-25 lead.
“If you beat (the press) with a couple quick passes you’re going to have a lot of open layups or open 3s, which is huge for us,” Niang said.
The Mountaineers would lead briefly twice in the second half, but Abdel Nader and Naz Long free throws sealed the win.
The teams combined for 55 free throw attempts and 50 fouls — a product of the frenetic and brusiing style West Virginia plays.
“We played them once and got a win,” said ISU’s Bryce Dejean-Jones, who is expected to come off the bench for the third consecutive game after starting 20 of the first 21. “Just looking to do the same.”
Morris would also like to replicate his individual performance, minus the final 54 seconds. He’ll likely be the primary defender on preseason Big 12 player of the year Juwan Staten, who scored 23 points in the previous meeting.
“I’m just going to make him make tough plays,” Morris said. “He’s projected Big 12 player of the year. He’s a senior, he’s a veteran, and whenever you get a chance to go up against a good guard like that, you’ve got to lace up your shoes the same. We’re just going to battle.”
Hoiberg said Morris is a player he doesn’t need to pump up in order for him to rise up amid challenging situations. The bigger the obstacle, the better he responds.
It’s a mentality that allowed Morris to set the NCAA single-season record for assist-to-turnover ratio last season (4.79 to 1), and helps him stay on pace to rival or surpass that mark (currently he’s at 4.66 to 1) as a sophomore.
“(Staten’s) a very good point guard,” Hoiberg said. “We’re blessed to have a great point guard as well in Monté. I think if you ask Huggs (West Virginia coach Bob Huggins) the same question, he’d tell you he feels pretty good when the ball’s in Staten’s hands. We feel the same way with Monté.”
This time, he hopes that’s for all 40 minutes.
And against the Mountaineers a complete game requires extra lubrication.
“Stay hydrated,” Morris said of job No. 1 on Saturday. “That’s all you can do. They’re going to come after us.”
SURVEY SAYS …
KenPom.com gives ISU a 70 percent chance of winning on Saturday. Projected score: 85-79.