NEAL x 3 = CLUTCH

The script could not have played out any better for a native Iowan who rose to the occasion Wednesday night in the biggest game of his life. A reserve walk-on, John Neal had never been on as big a stage as he was at Hilton Coliseum. But the Winterset product played like a seasoned veteran while hitting a pair of 3-pointers late to lead Iowa State to an 84-76 victory over the Hawkeyes.

Neal's offensive output during a decisive 17-2 run, and defensive work on Iowa's Pierre Pierce helped the Cyclones overcome a five-point deficit with 4:43 remaining. His first 3-pointer started the flurry and cut Iowa's lead to 68-66. Then, with just over two minutes to play he added another shot from downtown to give ISU a six-point edge.

"That's the most excited I've ever been and that's probably the most adrenaline that's gone through my body," said Neal, whose primary role was to defend Pierce down the stretch. "It's the most fun I've ever had on a basketball floor. This means a lot. It's bragging rights in the state. We stress how bad we want to beat these guys. It was big for us."

Although the Cyclones' big two, Jake Sullivan and Jackson Vroman, dominated the scoresheet with 40 points combined on 14-of-27 shooting, reserves Neal and Damion Staple proved to be the difference for the Cyclones. When Jared Homan was lost to a badly sprained ankle down the stretch, Staple came off the bench and sparked his team. In just 18 minutes of action the JUCO transfer contributed 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting to go along with four rebounds and four steals.

"You have to give a tremendous amount of credit to Damion Staple, who came in off the bench and played terrific, and John Neal, who came in and hit two huge threes," Morgan said. "I don't have a crystal ball, but there's a very good chance that we lose that game without John Neal. Those six points were invaluable, especially when they were made. Those threes at that point were almost like daggers."

For a first-year coach still trying to establish a presence in the state of Iowa, Wednesday night's win over the Hawkeyes proved to be a big first step for Morgan. While seeing his team win its 11th game in 14 attempts, he gave much of the credit to a Cyclone-dominated sellout crowd of 14,092.

"Iowa played very hard and I have a lot of respect for them and their effort," he said. "It's a great win for us. You're talking about a team that's beaten the University of Louisville and Purdue, two rated teams. Iowa works very hard. A couple of different bounces and they would have won, but fortunately we won. I thought they played well and we still beat them.

"We've witnessed a lot of great games at Hilton. The crowd was fantastic, especially going down the stretch. I thought they made it difficult for Iowa to run their stuff at one point. It was almost like (the crowd) was a sixth man. They were great."

Flaws in both teams were evident throughout Wednesday's game, but Iowa's 23 turnovers turned out to be a difference-maker. The Hawkeyes' turnover woes and foul problems played into ISU's hands. In the end, the Cyclones took 11 more shots from the field and doubled up Iowa in free throw attempts.

"I thought the difference tonight was they took care of the ball and we didn't," said Iowa head coach Steve Alford. "They ended up getting a hundred shots on goal and we get 74. That makes it very difficult, especially away from home. They kind of turned the tables at the foul line. That and our inability to take care of the ball was probably the difference in tonight's game."

But the Cyclones weren't exactly perfect themselves in a few categories. Although they would take 15 more free throws, they shot just under 56 percent from the charity stripe. After shooting nearly 49 percent from the field in the opening stanza, Morgan's team slumped to 34 percent in the second half.

ISU lost the battle of the boards, 46-39. But the good news for Morgan is that his team was able to salvage a near-split in rebounding margin during the second half.

"We kept scoring and stopping them (during the 17-2 run)," Morgan said. "I thought in the first half we were minus seven or eight on the boards. I thought it was critical that we do a better job rebounding. I told them if they got out-rebounded like that again they wouldn't win, so we rebounded a little better."

And getting a little dose of Neal didn't hurt matters, either.

"Coach has a lot of confidence in all of our guys, and John is a clutch player in practice and games," said Vroman. "The kid can flat out shoot and is maybe one of our best defenders. He goes against Jake, Stinson and those guys every day in practice. We get beat by those guys sometimes. It's a credit to Neal. The defense makes all of us better on offense."

Now that the Cyclones have beaten Iowa for the second-consecutive regular season, they will try to move past another obstacle this weekend at Baylor. ISU will be attempting to win its first Big 12 road game since the 2000-01 season.


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