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April 4, 2016
For the first time in program history, a National Championship banner is headed to Hilton Coliseum. The three-seed Cyclones completed their torrid run to greatness with an 83-76 win over top-seed Kentucky at NRG Stadium on Monday night. Cyclone floor general Monte Morris solidified himself as the break-out star of the tournament with 19 points and 11 assists, playing all 40 minutes without a single turnover. He led six Cyclones in double figures as they withstood a late push by star Kentucky freshman Jamal Murray’s 20 second-half points. Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm captured a national title in just his first year at the helm after replacing Cyclone icon Fred Hoiberg on the sideline. Hoiberg, whose Chicago Bulls visit Memphis Tuesday night, looked on from several rows behind the Cyclone bench as the nets were cut down.
The win caps off a story-book year in Ames and the celebration is sure to continue for months to come on Welch Avenue.
Many would not have guessed the Cyclones would be in this position after some tumultuous times this winter. Iowa State opened the season with a strong November, including an opening statement victory against Colorado in Sioux Falls. Adbel Nader was established as one of the most improved and dynamic players in the Big 12 with a brilliant non-conference that saw him assert himself as another weapon to the Cyclones attack.
After a close call against Virginia Tech in the opening game of the Emerald Coast Classic in Florida, Iowa State exacted revenge against last season’s March villain UAB to grab the early tournament crown.
Nader once again shined with a career night in the Cy-Hawk matchup with Iowa, scoring 24 points and sending Iowa back to Iowa City with its seventh straight loss at Hilton Coliseum. The win put the Cyclones at 8-0 and into the top five for the first time since 1997.
But questions arose with the depth of the Cyclones after foul trouble plagued them in stressful victory against UNI in Des Moines and in their first loss, a 71-63 contest at rugged Cincinnati in December.
The Cyclones labored to integrate Marquette transfer Deonte Burton into the rotation and the message boards were ablaze over Prohm’s offensive system as the Cyclones were held under 65 points for two straight games.
A double digit loss at Oklahoma in the Big 12 opener in Norman left many wondering if the Cyclones had enough in the tank to be one of the nation’s elite. A loss followed 10 days later to Shaka Smart’s upstart Longhorns in Austin, marking the third straight road loss for Iowa State, sending the Cyclones tumbling out of the top 15 for the first time in over a year. The national pundits labeled Iowa State as soft and a disappointment. Headlines across the blogosphere emerged, “Do the Cyclones miss the Mayor?”
Big Monday contests with top five clubs Oklahoma and Kansas loomed.
The season turned around with the January 18th Big Monday contest with then No. 5 Oklahoma. The Cyclones, led by Naz Long’s six 3-pointers, drilled the Sooners, giving Lon Kruger’s team their first Big 12 loss. The Cyclones chalked up another win at TCU to get back in the Big 12 race.
It set up an instant classic with No. 3 Kansas on a second straight Big Monday. The Cyclones trailed by as many as 12 in the second half, but a rim-rattling Morris to Jameel McKay alley-oop over the outstretched arm of Kansas’ Perry Ellis tied the game with a minute left. Newly eligible freshman Chieck Diallo missed two crucial free throws and setup one final Iowa State possession. All-American and Naismith finalist Georges Niang hit a floater with two seconds left to send Kansas home to Lawrence with their third straight loss to Iowa State, the most consecutive losses by a Bill Self coached KU team to another opponent.
The Cyclones vaulted into the national top 10, but again stumbled with losses in a late January non-conference game at Texas A&M and also in a sloppy effort at Baylor. Borderline egregious officiating doomed the Cyclones in a foul-fest in a nationally televised contest in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Once again, question-marks about Iowa State’s depth and toughness rose to the surface.
The Cyclones reeled off two straight wins at home and entered the final contest in Lawrence trailing Kansas and Oklahoma by a game each in the standings. The Cyclones ran into a KU buzz-saw. Jayhawks super sophomore Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and junior Wayne Selden hit a barrage of first half threes and Iowa State was buried before the game found a rhythm. A late Cyclone rally came up short and Kansas, due to Oklahoma’s shocking loss at TCU, captured another Big 12 regular season crown.
Iowa State dispatched Oklahoma State in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament and won another Big 12 overtime thriller over Oklahoma to setup a tournament finale with Kansas. This time the Jayhawks got the upper hand. Diallo scored 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds and KU cruised to a ten point win over a worn down Iowa State club.
Iowa State entered the NCAA Tournament as a three-seed in the East region and played their first two contests in St. Louis at the Scottrade Center. The “lack of depth” chorus echoed from the ESPN bracketologists. Jay Bilas led the charge, “Listen, I think Iowa State is a great offensive club and Steve Prohm has done an admirable job. I love their first six. But they don’t have the depth or length on the bench. You can’t expect to out-gun a Michigan State or North Carolina with their size and bodies in that East region.”
Bilas and the prognosticators were wrong. A focused Iowa State rolled to a 20 point win in their opening round game with Louisiana Lafayette, Deonte Burton started trending on Twitter after a freakish reverse dunk to put away the Cajuns. The next match-up was a hard-fought tussle with Georgetown. Morris was brilliant down the stretch and the thousands of Iowa State fans that made the five-hour trek willed the Cyclones to a five point win.
Iowa State hit the road to Philadelphia for a meeting with 2-seed Michigan State. Morris put on a show against his home-state Spartans that never offered him a scholarship. He poured in 23 points, including ten straight in a convincing second half run to propel the Cyclones to their first elite eight since 2000.
A wild game with North Carolina followed. Iowa native Marcus Paige put Iowa State on the ropes with a huge 3-pointer with a few minutes left to play. But Naz Long, like he did two years ago against the Heels, kept Iowa State afloat with a trey of his own. With McKay and Nader in foul trouble, lightly used freshman Simeon Carter came up with a pivotal block down the stretch. Iowa State isolated Georges Niang with North Carolina’s Brice Johnson and Niang finished off the Heels with a lean-in bank-shot as time expired. Iowa State advanced to its first final four since 1944.
The Cyclones had little issue with young phenom Ben Simmons and the Cinderella-minded LSU Tigers in the national semi-final. Balance was the key for Iowa State as Matt Thomas came off the bench to drill five three-pointers to lead Iowa State to a double digit win.
It all setup the historic victory against John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats and the Cyclones cutting down the nets. A wild run from a once-in-a-lifetime team. It’s officially a Cyclone Nation.
Who knows what is ahead for this group of Cyclones. And rest assured, unlike this article, they have their mind on the present not the future. As Steve Prohm’s mantra says, “Win the day.”
But the greatest dreams are those that can actually come true. Let’s get this season started.