Ames, Iowa –In the moments before the second half began, Jake Sullivan served notice to press row that something special was afoot.
Hilton Magic was on its way.
Sullivan's teammates – the dazzling freshmen back court of Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock, as well as the frontline duo of Jackson Vroman and Jared Homan – made him a prophet and sent over 11,000 fans home happy with a 68-61 upset victory over 15th-ranked Kansas on Saturday.
"This is the type of win that might get the program back where it needs to be," said Sullivan, who overcame a cold start to hit three big three-pointers in the second half.
The victory raises Iowa State's overall record to 13-4 in Wayne Morgan's first season, but more importantly they're first win over a ranked foe in two years officially catapults ISU into the Big 12 race with a 4-2 league mark. Kansas, which suffered its first loss in conference play, is one game up in the standings at 5-1.
"We fought, scratched, and clawed for 40 minutes," Morgan said. "(Assistant coach) Fred Quartlebaum went out and bought a hard-hat and lunch pale this week. He had it with him in the locker room before the game to point out we had to come out and work hard like construction workers."
The Cyclones certainly took that cue and ran with it. The biggest win of the Morgan era thus far was the result of a total team effort.
First of all, ISU physically matched the Jayhawks' impressive size by winning the rebounding battle, 44-39, including a plus-8 margin on the boards in the second half.
"The credit goes to our coaches," said Jackson Vroman, who finished with 12 points and eight rebounds. "Before the game they emphasized two things: rebounding and getting back on defense. We took their advice and look at the result."
Vroman was complemented by yet another Herculean effort from fellow "Bruise Brother" Homan, who posted 12 points, 11 rebounds, and an unbelievable six blocked shots.
"I can't say enough good things about Jared's courage because his ankle still hurts like Hell," Morgan said.
Despite playing on just one good wheel, Homan blocked 13 shots in two games this week and should be a strong candidate for Big 12 Player of the Week honors.
"It's all timing," Homan said. "Now the coaches want to hurt my other ankle once this one gets better."
Still, despite the impressive physical play down low for ISU, it took a little flash to finish off the visitors from Lawrence.
Enter Stinson, and his quickly becoming famous favorite shot, which he has eloquently dubbed the "teardrop."
Stinson made Jayhawk nation weep repeatedly with his vast array of floating, twisting shots that found the bottom of the net over and over again. Kansas Coach Bill Self put three different players on him in the second half, and nobody could stop him. His confidence never faltered, and fatigue never set in despite playing 39 minutes. In the end, his 19 points, 11 rebounds, and ability to break down the Jayhawk defense whenever he wanted to was the difference in the game.
"Stinson was made to play basketball," Morgan said.
Sullivan was hardly surprised at the way his precocious freshman teammate dominated the dominant program in the Big 12 Conference.
"That's what he does and he really stepped up in the second half," Sullivan said.
Not be outdone was Stinson's running mate, who didn't start for the first time in his career. Nonetheless, Blalock didn't let that faze him, nor the fact he was matched up against a senior in Aaron Miles that has played in the last two Final Fours.
He forced the tempo in the second half, and made Kansas defend all 94 feet after a plodding first half that was more to the Jayhawks' liking. He was simply too quick for Kansas to stop. Although he finished with just two points he was the Cyclones' silent hero, finishing with an incredible 11-to-zero assist-to-turnover ratio.
"I never thought I'd see the day that I would score just two points and people would say I played a good game," Blalock joked afterwards. "That's the first time that's happened since I was a freshman in high school."
Even though they each only count as one, some wins mean more than others do. In every conference there is a program by which all others measure themselves. In the Big 12 that is unquestionably Kansas, which is also one of the great legacies in the history of intercollegiate basketball.
Could this win be the springboard to a Cinderella season?
"I hope so," Morgan said. "Right now we just come in here every day and strive to get better every day."
We'll know a lot more about how good this team is a month from now, because a gauntlet awaits in February. And it all gets started on the road – gasp! – at Oklahoma on Wednesday.
But for now, Cyclone Nation can bask in the fact that its favorite team is undefeated at home, and has beaten arguably their two biggest rivals in its last two home games.
"My players love our fans," Morgan said.
And the feeling is mutual Coach.