Iowa State “couldn’t get over the hump” in narrow 72-69 Sweet 16 loss to Illinois

Mar 28, 2024; Boston, MA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Curtis Jones (5) reacts with guard Tamin Lipsey (3) against the Illinois Fighting Illini in the semifinals of the East Regional of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports 

BOSTON — Iowa State’s Tamin Lipsey spoke behind moistened eyes, physically and emotionally drained, clinging to the present, while being asked to look toward a bright future.

 The Cyclones’ dynamic sophomore guard — an Ames native and lifelong ISU fan — tried to process Thursday night’s 72-69 loss to Illinois in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 at TD Garden, but doing so proved to be difficult, if not impossible.

 “It was tough,” said Lipsey, who scored eight points while compiling four rebounds and four assists. “We kept getting it to a one-possession game and just weren’t able to get the lead. It was tough because we were fighting and we were working for it, and that’s hard to see when your guys are putting in so much effort and we’re just coming together and trying to fight, but we just come up one step short.”

 Say what you want about this Cyclone team (29-8), but maximum “effort” and “fight” defined a season that included a second-place finish in the Big 12, a sixth conference tournament title, and a second Sweet 16 trip in head coach T.J. Otzelberger’s three seasons at the helm. ISU also went undefeated at Hilton Coliseum (18-0) for the first time since 2001 and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament for the third time in program history.

 And most of the Cyclones’ nucleus is expected to be back next season, but no one really wanted to talk about the future in the wake of such an excruciatingly narrow defeat that ended the ISU careers of senior big men Tre King, Robert Jones and Hason Ward.

 “Just a lot of love for those guys,” said talented freshman forward Milan Momcilovic, who struggled offensively and finished with one point. “When I came in as a freshman, they kind of showed me the way. Led me. They did a lot for this program. Day in and day out they’ve been here, (two or) three years, so just love for those guys and sad to see that we — that I — couldn’t get it done for them today.”

 The Illini (29-8) seized control early and led by as many as 13 points, but Cyclone guard Curtis Jones sparked his team off the bench by scoring a team-best 26 points. He scored 11 of ISU’s first 12 points and no other Cyclone converted a field goal in the first half until Lipsey’s layup with 5:29 left. ISU trailed Illinois, 36-26, at the break, but came out of halftime with a plan to attack the rim — and junior guard Keshon Gilbert spearheaded that effort. He drove for the Cyclones’ first three baskets of the second half, Lipsey added a layup, then Gilbert drilled a 3-pointer to make the score, 41-37, with 16:31 left.

 “What we talked about at halftime was continuing to be aggressive and impose our will,” said Otzelberger, whose team had three chances to tie or take the lead in the final nine minutes but couldn’t do so. “We’re at our best attacking the rim downhill with our guards and we did a great job starting the half. I thought sometimes we could have been even more intentional throughout the second half, but I felt like our guys had a lot of fight and just couldn’t get over that hump.”

 Terrence Shannon Jr. led Illinois with a game-high 29 points. Gilbert scored 13 of his 14 points in the second half. King added 12 points and a game-high seven rebounds and Robert Jones notched six points and four rebounds. King, Jones and Ward closed their Cyclone careers, King and Jones joined Otzelberger’s then-fledgling program when ISU was coming off a 2-22 season. Ward came in the following year. All left indelible marks.  

 “Those are my real deal bros, for real,” Robert Jones said. “I like to say I like to take a couple bros from every team, but Hason and Tre specifically — I’ve taken him year-to-year the last three years and I couldn’t ask for a better four-man to have my back. I’m just sad it’s all over.”

 But unhappy endings often precede promising new beginnings. The three senior big men established a foundation. Guards such as Lipsey, Gilbert and Curtis Jones — along with Momcilovic and other returners — could help the program ascend even higher.

 “It was just a lot of good times,” Curtis Jones said. “We had a lot of wins together. I remember all the laughs we had. It was a fun group.”

 With more fun yet to come, potentially.

 “I’ve got a couple days rest,” Gilbert said, “then I’m right back at it.”