Big Apple Bound!

A pair of senior starters will live to play another college game. One freshman phenom gets to return to his home in New York City. His coach will return to a place where he won six conference championships as a Syracuse assistant. And it will be cornfields to skyscrapers for a Cyclone walk-on making a trip to the Big Apple.

Thursday night's 77-69 victory over Marquette sent Iowa State players and coaches into the NIT semifinals, and continued a remarkable postseason run for Wayne Morgan's team. ISU will face Rutgers on March 20th at 6 p.m. CST.

"It's going to be a great experience for guys like John Neal," said Morgan with a smile on his face. "When he goes to New York and sees what's going on there, it's going to be like when I came here and saw the cornfields and said ‘Wow.' That's a part of their education, and I'm happy they're going to get that experience.

"Nobody will ever be able to take that away. I'm happy for myself and our players. What we said to the kids is that if you can get to New York, there will be nobody in that arena who forgets what they saw."

One of those players is freshman Curtis Stinson, who did his best to secure a free trip home with 20 points and 11 rebounds for the Cyclones.

"I always dreamed about playing there, and watched a lot of my friends play there," said Stinson, who set a Big 12 freshman scoring record Thursday night. "My Big East friends play there, but I have never gotten the chance. This is my time. I'm going to go out there and do what I have to do. (A title) would mean a lot."

ISU improved to 20-10 this season and draws a Rutgers team fresh off a victory over Villanova on Wednesday. Making a trip to New York City was a big step for a program left reeling from controversy just 11 months ago. Morgan's first season in Ames wasn't the smoothest ride, either, and included a 31-point pasting to Kansas State.

But the program showed signs of life after a near-upset of Kansas in Lawrence, and the run continued with solid performances against Kansas State and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament.

"This team just worked and worked every day to get better," Morgan said. "We hit a plateau for a while, then bottomed out at Kansas State and lost by 31 points, and since then we've been building back up. The kids have responded. Will Blalock hit the freshman wall, smashed into it, fell down and was unconscious, then we revived him. I've never seen a kid mature so much in three or four weeks, and not only in terms of his play but his mental understanding of what he's doing. These kids really care for each other, and they don't care who scores, shoots and rebounds. They want to win.

"If we could rewind back to April 19th (of last year) and those meetings and talks, then the possibility of having a 20-win this season and a chance to win an NIT championship – I think we would have been happy with 14 wins. Getting to 20 is really nice."

Thursday night's victory ensured seniors Jake Sullivan and Jackson Vroman of at least one more college game. Both veterans played with a sense of urgency.

A four-year veteran of the program, Sullivan did much of his work from the charity stripe, hitting 11-of-12 shots at the free-throw line and finishing with a game-high 22 points. Vroman, meanwhile, battled an eye injury to finish with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

But one thing did come to an end for Sullivan and Vroman – their home careers at Hilton Coliseum. A sellout crowd of 14,092 did their best to send them off.

"They've been unbelievable since I got here four years ago, and keep giving us support," said Sullivan. "This is a big tournament. Sometimes they try to make it not to be, but it's a national tournament that we want to win. It's a real big deal. It's been an amazing run, but it's not done yet. We want to beat Rutgers and win two games in New York. I just want to focus the whole way."

ISU executed its defensive gameplan to near perfection against a team that advanced to the Final Four one season ago. Morgan's defense set out to take Travis Diener and Steve Novak out of the equation. They succeeded by holding the duo to just 7-of-19 combined from the floor and 24 points.

"We wanted to take the ball out of Diener's hands," Sullivan said. "He's such a great player. Novak was the real big key that we wanted to contain tonight, and we did that tonight. We wanted to make someone else beat us."

The pivotal point of Thursday's game came late in the first half and early in the second. Clinging to a 29-28 lead with 1:57 to play in the half, Stinson hit a pair of buckets, with one going for a 3-point play, to send his team to the locker room with a six-point edge.

ISU's momentum continued into the second half. Sullivan's 3-pointer in transition gave the Cyclones a 41-29 lead with 17:21 to play. Vroman's free throw with just over six minutes remaining gave his team its biggest lead of the night, 18 points.

"Right before halftime they started wearing down a little bit," Morgan said. "The three-point play by Curtis gave us a breathing room right before halftime, and that was key. At the beginning of the second half we changed our defense and completely cut off Novak and Diener, and that gave them a lot of trouble."

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