Iowa State’s guard Tyrese Hunter (11) lays up the ball around Alabama State forward Jordan O’Neal (2) during the first half at Hilton Coliseum Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Ames, Iowa. (Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK)
AMES — Iowa State was in need of a spark when Izaiah Brockington soared for an offensive rebound with just more than two minutes on the clock and the Cyclones leading Alabama State 58-53 at Hilton Coliseum.
The Penn State transfer secured the basketball and turned towards the basket. He saw a clear path to the rim and threw home a thunderous dunk that brought the crowd to its feet.
As he watched from afar, Iowa State’s freshman point guard, Tyrese Hunter, thought to himself, “It would be cool if I got one of those.”
Moments later, Hunter jumped into a passing lane, tipped the ball away and secured a steal. He saw nothing but open court ahead. He rose up and threw down a one-handed slam through a foul, pushing Iowa State’s lead to nine, giving the Cyclones an exclamation point on a 68-60 win and moving the program to 3-0 for the first time since 2018.
“It was a momentum shift, for sure,” Hunter said of the back-to-back dunks. “When I got the ball, I was like, ‘Is this real?'”
It was real, just like Hunter, the former four-star recruit from Racine, Wis. is the real deal. The dunk produced two of Hunter’s 19 points to go along with six assists, three steals and two rebounds with only one turnover in 32-minutes of play.
The steal and dunk was an encapsulation of what made Hunter such a highly sought-after recruit as a prep. The play required defensive savvy and explosive athleticism, a pair of qualities Hunter certainly possesses.
It was a play that made you lean back in your seat and say, “Wow.” I have a hard time believing it will be the last time he makes a play like that.
“Tyrese is all character, all toughness, a winner. He’s going to be one of those players for our program that continues to impose his will and his work ethic every day to make our program successful,” Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “He has so much pride in how he plays. He cares so much about his teammates. I know that any adversity that he has, he’s going to bounce back better for it. In fact, I’m not sure that there’s been players I can count on that I’ve been fortunate to coach that bounce back quickly to the next play to the degree that he does. So we’re fortunate to have him.”
The Cyclones are fortunate to have Brockington, too.
The Penn State transfer scored a game-high 23 points, on 9-of-17 shooting, and grabbed 13 rebounds for his second consecutive double-double. Brockington’s pair of double-doubles arrive after Iowa State posted a grand total of zero such statlines in 2020-21.
In the moments when Iowa State needed someone to make a play, the Cyclones went to Brockington. When they needed a spark, Brockington delivered.
Case and point being the aforementioned offensive rebound and dunk that preceded Hunter’s steal and slam.
“The 3-pointers weren’t going down so I went up and grabbed it then nobody was there,” Brockington said. “I wanted to put some emphasis on it and just really try to pull away. I knew it was late in the game.”
For Brockington to say the 3-pointers weren’t going down would be an understatement. The Cyclones shot just 1-of-20 from 3-point range with the only make coming off an Aljaz Kunc shot in the corner that the Alabama State defense more or less allowed to go up completely uncontested.
Regardless, Iowa State won the basketball game. That’s not something we probably could have said in past years when the shots weren’t falling and everything became a struggle on the offensive end.
The deciding factor was the Cyclones’ defensive intensity, which forced Alabama State to commit 23 turnovers and shoot just 26 percent from 3-point range.
“For our group, we’re going to continue to emphasize all the winning things,” Otzelberger said. “For us, what it can be is a defense that sets the tone with ball pressure, turns people over, we’ve turned our opponents over I think 20 times a game. That’s not by chance. That’s by design. We take charges. We speed people up and then we rotate. At times tonight, we didn’t do that as well. We can be a really good defensive team that if we value the ball and get the right shots, we’ll knock them down.”
It was encouraging to see this team persevere on a night even when the shots weren’t falling. There figures to be a lot of those in Otzelberger’s first season without the presence of a true sharpshooter on the roster.
Alabama State was able to find success defensively by packing the paint with a zone and daring Iowa State to shoot over the top. That’s a strategy I’d expect to see opposing teams use often against this group of Cyclones as the season progresses.
The best way to combat that is two-fold.
No. 1 — Take care of the basketball. The Cyclones had their best night of the year in that category on Tuesday as they turned the ball over just eight times, which was considerably less than the team’s first two games last week.
No. 2 — Defend with purpose. This team already does that at a higher level than any Iowa State team in the last decade. The offensive skill isn’t there, but the desire to defend makes up for it enough to win games like this.
“People have to do whatever they think is in their best interest to beat us,” Otzelberger said when asked about teams playing zone and daring the Cyclones to shoot. “We will impose our will defensively, pressuring the basketball and turning them over. Then we can be effective in transition. Regardless of whatever defense they play, whether it’s zone, they pack it in, I’m not as worried about that. I’m more worried about our attention to detail defensively, setting the tone getting out in transition because when we’re able to do that we’re a pretty electric team.”
That electricity came through in back-to-back possessions punctuated by thundering slams from the two players emerging as the leaders of this Iowa State team. Carrying these things forward as the opponents grow stronger and the adversity comes more frequently will be the key.
Hunter’s thought after Brockington’s dunk was right, though.
It was pretty dang cool.