AMES, IOWA — Matt Thomas surveyed the scene, crept his way into the far corner with his defender halfway across the court and waved his arms.
The shot hunter suddenly became the hunted.
“I just swung it out,” Niang said afterward. “Matt was making shots all night so I was living and dying by him making shots.”
Backing his defender down toward the block across the court, Niang spotted Thomas’s waving hands and skipped a pass over two defenders. Thomas’s defender darted toward the corner, but the crafty shooter pump-faked, sidestepped and released his final 3-pointer of the night in one fluid motion.
The shot would push Thomas to a career-high 22 points, it helped him tie a career-high with six 3-pointers and it ultimately sealed Iowa State’s 76-69 win against Texas Tech in its Big 12 home opener.
“That was big separation because the second half, we just didn’t have it,” coach Steve Prohm said later. “That was a big shot for us."
The collective sigh of relief that followed with 92 ticks remaining Wednesday was a far cry from what would have been expected some 26 minutes earlier when the Cyclones used their trademark high-octane offense to build an 18-point lead.
That 31-13 lead just more than midway through the first half came behind an 11-0 run in a span of 1 minute, 48 seconds and without Georges Niang, who attempted just one first-half shot and played less than four first-half minutes with three fouls.
“We are comfortable playing with each other, so when one of us goes out we don’t look at it as a negative,” said Jameel McKay, who finished with 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks in the win. “We love to have him out there, but we’ve got to move on for the moment. We just kept playing.”
As did the Red Raiders
Texas Tech followed Iowa State’s run with a 10-0 run if its own to draw within single digits before the Cyclones took a 10-point lead to halftime.
That lead began to dwindle out of the break as Iowa State, which shot just 41 percent from 2-point range (19-of-46), struggled from the field and watched Texas Tech draw within one point eight minutes into the second period.
“We got off to a great start, for sure,” Thomas said. “Second half we obviously missed a few shots. We took a few quick, early shots that we maybe could have moved the ball around a little bit more. We just weren’t really getting consistent stops there until late in the game.
"It’s going to happen in the Big 12 like that and you’ve just got to grind it and show grit and find a way to win.”
Thomas, who is now 35-of-79 from 3-point range after Wednesday’s 6-of-10 showing, scored nine of his 22 points in the second half while Niang scored all 14 points in the second to help thwart Texas Tech’s comeback attempt.
The clincher came with 92 seconds and Thomas in the corner.
“I just have to hunt my shots and move without the ball and find spots where I can get looks,” Thomas said. “I think I was really aggressive. In transition I like to definitely hunt my shot and Monte [Morris], he sees the entire floor so I know if I get open he’s going to find me and other guys are going to find me as well.”
Wednesday, that plan led to Big 12 win No. 1.
“That’s how league play is,” Prohm said of the up-and-down performance. “It’s not going to be pretty some nights.”