STANZ: Grill’s signature performance lifts Iowa State over No. 1 UNC

Iowa State University Cyclones guard Caleb Grill (2) takes a three-point shot over Milwaukee Panthers guard Angelo Stuart (5) during the second half at Hilton Coliseum Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, in Ames, Iowa. Photo by Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune

PORTLAND — Maybe, it was the breakfast.

Caleb Grill‘s Black Friday 2022 didn’t start much differently from most days. He woke up in Iowa State’s team hotel in Portland. He ate breakfast with his teammates.

That breakfast … consisting of french toast, eggs and potatoes, must have been good.

It must have been so good that it fueled the senior guard from Wichita to one of the greatest performances of his life against No. 1 North Carolina on this day at Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum.

That performance lifted Iowa State into Sunday night’s Phil Knight Invitational title game against the winner of Friday night’s game between No. 13 Alabama and No. 20 UConn.

Grill scored 31 points, connected on 11-of-15 shots from the floor and 7-of-11 shots from 3-point range.

And, Iowa State won the basketball game, 70-65, securing the program’s third win over the AP No. 1 team in program history, and first since beating Oklahoma on Jan. 18, 2016, at Hilton Coliseum.

Safe to say, this day wasn’t so normal for Grill in the end. Something changed after that breakfast.

“I was just staying the course of the game,” Grill said. “I never really thought about it. The game just kind of came to me and I got open shots. I hit them down and then credit to my teammates for finding me on those open looks. Throughout the game, I thought everybody stepped up big.”

Iowa State did need multiple people to step up big in this game, but nobody stepped up bigger than Grill. He made each of his first four 3-point attempts while keeping Iowa State afloat early in the game. The Cyclones badly needed those contributions as fouls started to mount and Tar Heel guards RJ Davis and Caleb Love started to get rolling.

North Carolina went up by as much as nine in the first half, and Hubert Davis’ star trio of Davis, Love and center Armando Bacot combined to score 28 of North Carolina’s 34 first-half points.

With Iowa State trailing by nine with five minutes left in the first half, it was Jaren Holmes who pushed the Cyclones back into the game, scoring seven of the team’s points during a 9-0 run that tied the game.

The other two in that stretch came from, you guessed it, Grill.

“We certainly encountered our share of adversity tonight with fouls and swings in the game,” Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We talked a lot about it leading into this game that the full 40 minutes was going to be so important. Our guys have tremendous confidence in our ability to get stops based on the work that they do every day, and then the game comes around offensively and different guys certainly stepped up.”

Holmes and Grill combined to score 27 points in the second half of the game with each basket being bigger than the last.

Love and Davis combined for 19 points on 8-of-13 in the first half. The duo combined for nine points on 2-of-12 from the field after halftime.

All throughout that second 20 minutes, the two teams traded blows.

Iowa State took its first lead of the half on the third of three-straight buckets by Robert Jones during a 9-0 run that was capped with a Grill 3-pointer.

North Carolina retook the lead and built it all the way up to an eight-point deficit, but Iowa State continued to chip away. Three straight jumpers from Holmes to trade buckets with UNC, but to get back within five.

Another 3-pointer from Grill to pull back within four after a Leaky Black layup.

Jones came up with a dunk to get within three after a Pete Nance free throw. It was the Cyclones’ backup center’s final bucket of the night and pushed him to 10 points on the afternoon.

Then, Grill took over, knocking down a deep 3-pointer from the top of the key to tie the game, and following it up with a tough fading jumper to give Iowa State a 63-61 lead that it held until the final horn.

“It was surreal,” Otzelberger said of Grill’s performance. “When I think back to when I first met Caleb, following his sophomore in high school, I had a belief in him and confidence and saw something special in his competitive spirit and how he worked. We’ve been on an interesting journey, and we’ve ended up back together where we’re both supposed to be.”

Grill’s performance will live forever as perhaps one of the most improbable and unpredictable big game outputs in Cyclone history. This is a guy whose career high before this was a 27-point performance against Alabama when he was playing for Otzelberger at UNLV in 2021-22.

He’d scored 20 or more only once in an Iowa State uniform, a 20-point output against Southeastern Louisiana early last year.

And he didn’t play particularly well in Thursday’s PKI opening win over Villanova, knocking down 1-of-4 shots from deep in the game, but that one was rather significant as the first bucket of overtime.

Regardless, Grill elevated with confidence the entire afternoon and took some shots with confidence late in the game that were unlike anything we’d seen from him in his two-plus years wearing an Iowa State uniform.

It was something that never could have been predicted, but it happened.

Remarkably, on this Black Friday in the Pacific Northwest, it absolutely happened.

“It’s just amazing,” Otzelberger said. “You really think about it, how long we’ve known each other and the trust we’ve had in one another. Winning games is awesome. Certainly, we’re highly competitive, we want to win every night out, but to be able to do this with people that you love, people that you know, you’re gonna be on this journey with for the rest of your life, man, it’s really special.”

Suddenly, Iowa State basketball has been introduced to the national stage — again. The Cyclones will have a great opportunity to win this event, which is unquestionably one of the best on the college basketball calendar this season.

Iowa State will surely be back in the rankings next week, and will still have several opportunities to push further up in those rankings over the next several weeks.

All because of a win over No. 1 and one ridiculously improbable, unpredictable and unlikely performance from one of the program’s veterans.

Nobody could have seen this coming from Caleb Grill.

But, it happened.

Maybe, it was that breakfast.

Or, maybe, it was magic.

“The sense of gratitude and thankfulness I have right now couldn’t be greater,” Otzelberger said. “It’d be hard to even put into words how proud I am of Caleb Grill.”

Jared Stansbury


Jared a native of Clarinda, Iowa, started as the Cyclone Fanatic intern in August 2013, primarily working as a videographer until starting on the women’s basketball beat prior to the 2014-15 season. Upon earning his Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Iowa State in May 2016, Jared was hired as the site’s full-time staff writer, taking over as the primary day-to-day reporter on football and men’s basketball. He was elevated to the position of managing editor in January 2020. He is a regular contributor on 1460 KXNO in Des Moines and makes regular guest appearances on radio stations across the Midwest. Jared resides in Ankeny with his four-year-old puggle, Lolo.