Iowa State Cyclones forward Milan Momcilovic (22) and Iowa State Cyclones guard Keshon Gilbert (10) celebrate with the team after winning 57-53 over Houston in the Big-12 conference showdown of an NCAA college basketball game at Hilton Coliseum on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — No. 2 Houston took away the primary drawn-up play. So Iowa State freshman Milan Momcilovic calmly made the play of the game. About 15 feet from the basket, with the score tied 53-53, Momcilovic turned toward the baseline — away from a Cougar double team — and released a fadeaway shot that any kid dreams about making.
The 6-8 forward from Pewaukee, Wis. swished it — and Hilton Coliseum erupted Tuesday night as the Cyclones eventually toppled the nation’s lone remaining unbeaten team, 57-53, before an officially sold-out crowd of 14,267
“I knew it was going in,” said Momcilovic, who tacked on a pair of game-sealing free throws for the Cyclones (12-3, 1-1 Big 12).
ISU notched its seventh win over an Associated Press top-10 team since the start of last season, which, as ESPN college basketball insider Jeff Borzello noted on social media, is the most of any Division I team in that span.
And to think the latest such triumph unfolded before a less-than-full Hilton because of a blizzard. The many ISU fans who did show up, however, created a deafening melange of cheers and boos — and left Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson seeing (and hearing) ghosts.
“Nothing’s changed,” said Sampson, who led many Oklahoma Sooners teams into Hilton earlier in his venerable career. “One time, I think we were up 16 or 17 at halftime and (former Cyclone star) Jamaal Tinsley couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat from the 3-point line and he makes six 3s in the second half. I’m exaggerating on both counts, probably.”
It’s not hyperbole to say that Tuesday’s win proved that ISU is capable of playing with — and beating — the top teams in the country. Sophomore point guard Tamin Lipsey led the Cyclones with 14 points after finishing with a season-low four points on 1-for-10 shooting in last weekend’s 71-63 loss at ninth-ranked Oklahoma.
“We’re a young team,” Lipsey said. “We’re learning every game, but we’re gonna come out and fight every game, no matter who we’re playing, no matter where we’re playing. Just don’t doubt us.”
Momcilovic added 11 points, but that clutch baseline fadeaway was his first and only field goal of the second half. It came with 31 seconds remaining — and just under three minutes away from the Cougars taking their first lead of the game, at 51-50, on Jamal Shead’s short jumper.
“We wanted to get either Tamin going to the rim, or we wanted to get Milan in position there for that shot that he’s confident in. We saw (at Oklahoma that) he had a lot of courage late in the game to step up and make some plays and some shots and we’ve got all the confidence in the world in him. So to see a freshman want the ball, make a shot with that degree of difficulty at that point in the game, and then go to the foul line and finish the job is really impressive.”
Houston entered the game with the best defense nationally by far, according to KenPom, but ISU proved to be even more aggressive, especially early, as it built a 14-0 lead. The Cougars chipped away the rest of the game, though, hitting an array of 3-pointers late in the shot clock that helped them take that short-lived lead with 3:17 left. Momcilovic — and the Cyclones’ No. 3-rated defense per KenPom — did the rest.
“We were the more resilient team,” Otzelberger said. “We made more plays. And we have all the respect in the world for their program and what they’ve done, but nobody’s gonna come in here and push us around. Nobody’s gonna come in here and bully us. Not real happy about being an underdog. Not that we follow any of that sort of thing, but nobody’s gonna call us an underdog at Hilton Coliseum.”
Not on Tuesday. Not in the aftermath of the first snowstorm of the winter, which impacted the size of the crowd, but not it’s full-throated enthusiasm. And certainly not with Momcilovic taking a shot with the game on the line.
“It means a lot, just the trust they have in me to go get a bucket there,” he said. “I mean, not to be cocky, but big-time players make big-time shots.”