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KANSAS CITY — ISU’s ironman point guard Monté Morris naturally chose to help.
His teammate, Georges Niang was on the spot — with Oklahoma’s Jordan Woodard driving for a potential game-tying layup in the closing seconds of Friday’s tense Big 12 Tournament semifinal at the Sprint Center.
So Morris left Ryan Spangler to double-up on Woodard, who deftly curled a pass to his cutting big man with three seconds left.
Spangler approached the rim all alone.
The No. 13 Cyclones winced, bracing for a possible tie and overtime. But then, a miracle.
Spangler missed off glass to the amazement of the Sprint Center’s sellout crowd and ISU somehow held on for a 67-65 win — and kept a Saturday championship game date with mighty Kansas.
“I tried to be a great teammate,” Morris said one night after drilling the buzzer-beating, game-winning jumper into Texas. “Left Spangler, but I guess it was meant for us to win this game.”
Call it fate. Good fortune. Even magic.
Just don’t call it easy.
ISU (24-8) survived yet another slow start to forge its fourth straight comeback win from a double-digit deficit.
Defense made it possible, as did the bench, which helped the Cyclones climb out of a 19-8 first-half hole to tie the score, 29-29 at halftime.
And perhaps no sequence in the game better illustrated the first part of that equation better than forward Jameel McKay’s block-dunk-block flurry that spanned 28 seconds and helped the Cyclones turn a 62-61 lead into a 66-61 advantage on Niang’s clutch jumper 30 seconds later.
“Gotta keep doing it until the buzzer sounds,” said McKay, who had 12 points and nine rebounds. “That’s all I was thinking. ‘OK, I got a block, now we’ve got to get a bucket and I’ve got to get another block.’ That’s the only way I’m satisfied.”
As for the bench’s role, Abdel Nader and Bryce Dejean-Jones handled that end.
“I thought Bryce and Abdel, their energy was off the charts tonight and we’re going to need them in a big way tomorrow, with the minutes that our guys have played in these two days,” ISU coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Matt Thomas as well. And maybe guys that haven’t had their name called are going to have to be ready to get out there and maybe give us a few minutes. But I thought those two bench guys in particular were really good, especially on the defensive end.”
Nader led ISU with second first-half points. Dejean-Jones scored five in each half and tied Niang with a game-high three steals. Both contested shots and clogged driving lanes.
“Just looking to go in there and create a spark defensively,” Dejean-Jones said.
That he did, but it was a team-wide effort. The Cyclones scraped up 12 steals — more than they’d raked away in a conference game since compiling that many against Kansas last January.
“We emphasized (active hands on D) big time,” Nader said. “Even on the board if you were to go and look right now, it says, ‘Active hands.’”
Oklahoma shot 41 percent and Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield needed 20 shots to score 16 points. The Sooners coughed up 14 turnovers, with all but two of them being forced.
“A lot of the possessions came down to defense and rebounding,” Morris said. “It wasn’t us coming down and needing a bucket. We were always kind of up late in the game so we needed a stop.”
Enter Spangler and Oklahoma’s almost perfect play — until the end.
“You’re obviously thinking it’s going in,” Hoiberg said. “You just hope you don’t foul and give them a 3-point play, but we weren’t close enough to foul him. He had a heck of a game; he’s a wonderful kid. Just the ball — it looked like it slipped out of his hands a little bit. We executed the initial switch well, then somehow got lost on that back side.”
Enter hold-your-breath mode.
“The words that went through my head were, ‘Oh no,’" said Niang, who led the Cyclones with 13 points and four assists. "That’s what I’m going to tell you guys, but it was something else.”
McKay likely said something similar as he faced his own choice: Leave an open 3-point shooter, or retreat to try to slow down Spangler.
“At that moment, I had to pick between a wide-open 3, maybe, or a wide-open layup,” McKay said. “I just went with the layup. Worst case scenario, overtime.”
Best case, Kansas.
“This is what the people asked for: one versus two (seeds),” Niang said. “I’m expecting it to be crazy.”