Iowa State Cyclones guard Curtis Jones (5) takes a three-point shot over Eastern Illinois Panthers guard Dan Luers (25) during the first half of a NCAA college basketball at Hilton Coliseum on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — Curtis Jones handled the outside. Robert Jones took care of the interior.
Iowa State’s same-surname duo — no relation — efficiently combined for 34 points as the Cyclones breezed past Eastern Illinois 80-48 Thursday before 12,841 fans at Hilton Coliseum.
“They were trying to keep it at their pace and we were trying to play at our speed,” said ISU point guard Tamin Lipsey, who chipped in 16 points while parceling out seven assists. “So I feel like we did a good job of (that) and then we got in transition after we got rebounds and stops and that’s how we got the lead up.”
Curtis Jones scored 18 points on 5-for-9 3-point shooting to lead the Cyclones (10-2), and Robert Jones added 16 points on 7-for-9 field goal shooting while tying Lipsey with a team-best six rebounds. He also ran the floor with alacrity and was rewarded with crisp passes for six fast break points, including a dunk.
“Defensively, not only is he protecting the rim in our backline defense, but he’s pressuring the ball when it’s out on the perimeter,” ISU head coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “He’s ending up guarding guards. Flying around. Just so impressed with how he kept finding more effort, more energy. It’s impressive because he’s definitely taken a huge step and he’s so impactful on winning right now.”
So is Curtis Jones, who started the season 3-for-17 from beyond the arc, but has drilled 12 of his last 19 from long-range. Otzelberger raved about the transfer from Buffalo’s shooting ability in the summer and now that’s showing up with regularity, along with a defensive intensity that fuels his offense.
“We talk so much about how our defense leads to our offense, so there’s a thing to being in rhythm, and then, like, how do you defend?” Otzelberger said. “He was pressuring the ball and the ball finds guys that bring energy and he was bringing great energy.”
Curtis Jones is now shooting 39 percent from 3-point range despite his early-season struggles and playing with a short memory helps explain why.
“It’s tough mentally going through a slump like that, but I’d say the only thing you can do is keep going, so I just kept going, and praise God, I’m able to make shots now,” he said.
Freshman forward Milan Momcilovic has made shots at a high clip all season for the Cyclones, but he went scoreless in the first half before erupting for 16 second-half points on 5 of 6 shooting.
“We challenged him at halftime,” Otzelberger said. “I felt like (in) the first half he was going through the motions and wasn’t being the player that we know he can be. Again, I felt like defensively, and on the glass, he set the tone, and then his energy offensively. He was cutting. He was moving without the ball. He was getting to his spots. He was getting to the free throw line.”
Speaking of that area, Momcilovic went 5-for-5 from the stripe and ISU — which entered the game shooting 68.9 percent from the line — drained 16 of 18 overall (88.9 percent).
“I think it’s (about) the mental and, you know, the repetition, but the mental preparation in the moment and they did a great job with it tonight,” Otzelberger said.
The Cyclones never trailed the Panthers (6-7) and led by as many as 37 points. ISU’s players will enjoy a 10-day Christmas layoff before finishing off the nonconference slate at noon on New Year’s Eve against visiting New Hampshire.
“It’s important to enjoy the time with family and friends for all of us who are able to go home, and just taking a rest with your body, getting healthy,” Lipsey said. “But make sure we keep our weight up, hydrate, all those things, and obviously stay in the gym on that break and be ready to come back and get right to it.”