AMES, IOWA — Monte Morris stood at midcourt dribbling, watching, waiting. His heart beat in rapid succession. The clock slowly ticked away. This was it.
One way or another, Morris would end the game.
When Georges Niang had inbounded the ball with 21.5 seconds remaining, Iowa State trailing by one, he relayed five simple words to his point guard: “Go win us this game,” Niang told him, the clock starting. The pressure was on.
So Morris dribbled up court. He stopped at halfway to set himself up and Jameel McKay flashed to the top with a screen. Morris hesitated and crossed over his defender. The clock slowly ticked away: 14, 13, 12… Then it happened. Just as Morris had done so many times across town in front of concrete walls, he did now in front of 14,384 fans.
He rose off his feet, flicked his right wrist and watched.
“It’s one of my shots I always work on, my floater,” Morris would say afterward. “I thought it was going in when I let it go.”
There was little doubt. When the shot fell through the net and Iowa missed a counter on the other end as time expired, Iowa State had done the improbable. The Cyclones erased what once was a 20-point deficit, they had scored the game’s final nine points and somehow, someway, they had beaten Iowa, 83-82.
“The biggest thing is, man, you’re playing 40 minutes,” coach Steve Prohm said. “We just had to stay the course. Monte made a big time shot. [Jarrod] Uthoff, thank goodness he missed it. That was fun.”
There was little fun to be had in the first half for Iowa State.
Uthoff may have missed the game-winner, but he struggled to miss beforehand. He scored 30 points in the first half, each basket bringing with it an increasing groan from the crowd. Meanwhile, Iowa State turned the ball over 12 times, struggled to hit shots of their own and fell behind by as many as 20.
Even when the Cyclones scored the last five points of the first half to draw within 14 and began to hit shots to start the second, Iowa answered. The deficit grew back to 20 just more than three minutes into the second half.
“They threw a punch,” Prohm said of the Hawkeyes. “We were rushing, just playing too fast offensively and we were just trying to get it all back at once. The biggest thing was the remind these guys they’ve been in this situation so many times.”
Five and a half minutes later, the deficit having been whittled down to 15, the improbable comeback was underway. McKay started it with a dunk and some five minutes later, when Niang canned a 3, Iowa State had closed within 71-70 behind a 16-2 run.
Yet not long after Iowa had pushed back ahead by eight. It appeared as if the Cyclones’ comeback attempt would come up short.
“I tried to call some timeouts in different situations to just get some rest,” Prohm said. “Right when we hit that stride — because everybody was thinking, ‘OK, they made their run, this is it, [they’re] gassed’ — I think that press gave us one more little bit of energy."
Iowa State trailed 82-74 with 2:36 remaining.
Morris hit two free throws to start the final comeback but after a miss on the next possession the Cyclones would need some magic trailing by six with 65 seconds.
McKay promptly stole the inbounds pass on the press and dished it to Morris, who found Matt Thomas in the corner for 3. They pressured again, and the Hawkeyes held too long. Iowa State took the ball, Niang was fouled and hit both free throws to draw within one.
A shot clock violation gave Iowa State the ball with 21.5 seconds remaining and there was little doubt what would happen next. Monte Morris was getting the ball.
He drove. He floated. The shot fell.
“That’s Big Game Tae. That’s what he does,” McKay said. “I expected him to take the shot and I got out of his way. I wanted him to take the shot, we all wanted him to take the shot and as long as he takes it we know it’s going in.”
“When you have the best point guard in the country you really have no worries with him going to make a play,” Niang added. “Credit to him, the kid works his tail off. He calls himself ‘Big Game,’ but he really is, ‘Big Game Tae.’”
Thomas scored 19 off the bench — hitting a career-high six 3s — and the Cyclones committed just one second-half turnover en route to the improbable victory.
“As long as we’re in Hilton, we’ll always believe we can win,” McKay said. “That’s the only magic I believe in.”
When the raucous crowd had cleared, Morris stood in the tunnel attempting to process what had just occurred. He walked back through the play, the conversations, the floaters in practice that had all led to this. Finally, he paused and smiled.
“I’m lost for words…” Morris said. “And I’m tired.”