It was raining outside, not snowing. There was a touch of mugginess in the air, instead of frost. Visibility was impacted by fog, not drifting. Inside it was downright warm, well beyond toasty. It certainly seemed more like an early spring evening, as opposed to early December.
Fitting, then, that two teams from power conferences hooked up for an early-season, nationally-televised clash that had the look, tempo, and feel of March Madness. Iowa State didn't win, as much as it outlasted, 19th-ranked Virginia to post a thrilling 81-79 victory in front of 12,224 fans at Hilton Coliseum on Monday night.
"I thought it was an NCAA Tournament type of game," Iowa State Coach Wayne Morgan said afterward.
It wasn't quite the NCAA Tournament, but it could be the type of game that helps land the Cyclones a bid to Big Dance three months from now for the first time in four years.
"Give (Virginia) credit," ISU star Curtis Stinson. "They came in here and played hard on our floor."
It was the first loss of the season for the Cavaliers, who's record fell to 6-1.
"We wanted to win but they played desperate," Virginia Coach Pete Gillen said. "In the second half we matched their fanaticism."
Iowa State improved to 4-1 and plays its second straight ranked opponent when it next travels to #17 Iowa for the renewal of the instate rivalry on Friday.
"Can we just enjoy this one for a minute," asked Morgan in the postgame press conference when the topic of the Hawkeyes came up.
The game seemingly featured a season's worth of highlight reel plays. It was up-and-down the court, and neither side tried to slow it down until the end of the game grind took hold down the stretch. It was a game of runs as well. Virginia started out with a 10-2 lead. The Cyclones responded with a 26-10 run that gave them a working margin late in the first half. That was until the Cavaliers scored the final 11 points before halftime to head to the break with a 42-41 lead.
Virginia was sparked Devin Smith, who scored 25 points in the first half alone, 20 of which he scored during a torrid 6 minute and 46 second stretch that ignited the comeback.
"Smith was the only guy that was playing for us," Gillen said. "The rest of our guys were intimidated by the crowd, frankly."
Smith would finish with a game-high 40 points. However, he was relatively quiet in the final six minutes of the game once the Cyclones deployed a box-in-one defense, with defensive specialist John Neal playing the role of nuisance.
"John was unbelievable in that box-in-one," Morgan said. "The good news for Smith is that everybody who has ever scored 40 points or more in this building has gone on to play in the NBA."
Several times, just when it appeared that ISU would put the game away, either Smith would hit a big basket or the Cyclones would come up short at the free throw line. In fact, to describe ISU's performance at the charity stripe as abysmal might be charitable. The Cyclones finished just 12-of-27, including 10 misses in their first 11 opportunities in the second half. Conversely, the Cavaliers were an outstanding 23-of-27, and that discrepancy allowed them to hang in until the end of the game with chance to win it.
"It's amazing that you can miss 15 free throws in a game and still win," Morgan said.
Thankfully, ISU found other ways to make up for it. They had more points in the paint, more points off turnovers, more second chance points, more fast break points, and more bench points. They also forced twice as many turnovers as they committed while shooting 58 percent from the three-point line.
"I'm really proud of our team," Morgan said. "They gave everything they had."
Morgan shook up his starting lineup by inserting freshman Tasheed Carr and junior college transfer Robert Faulkner.
Faulkner, a year removed from major knee surgery, put the athleticism and energy that made him a prized recruit before the injury on display, scoring 10 points and grabbing five rebounds in 15 minutes of action before fouling out with 7:03 left. When he was disqualified, the Cyclones held a 10-point lead. Upon his departure the Cavaliers quickly erased that deficit with a 13-3 run to tie the score with 4 minutes remaining.
"He gave us a terrific lift," Morgan said. "If we could ever get him to stop fouling we'd have something."
The biggest advantage for ISU came in the backcourt, where Stinson and running mate Will Blalock dominated. Blalock was the on-court field general, posting a solid seven-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, including several spectacular dimes. Stinson was…well…Stinson. In other words, simply sensational. He led the Cyclones with 30 points, and hit the biggest shot of the game when he buried the winning three-pointer with 14 seconds left. That shot overcame the two-point lead the Cavaliers had just grabbed – their only one in the second half – on a jumper by Gary Forbes with 27 seconds left.
"Curtis has the heart of a great white shark," Morgan said.
As is his trademark, the unflappable Stinson was nonchalant about the pressure he was facing that moment.
"I was just like I have to take this because I'm open," he said flatly.
Gillen said it was the dagger that ultimately unhinged his Cavaliers' gutsy rally.
"He's a tremendous player," Gillen said. "We couldn't stop him. I knew he'd play well on national television."
So how did the Cyclones turn it around so quickly against a quality foe on the heels of last week's woodshed beating at Northern Iowa?
"We knew we had to bounce back," Blalock said. "We knew we screwed up against UNI and we had to make up for it."
ISU's win snapped its dubious streak of nine straight losses on either ESPN or ESPN2, dating back to 2001. When queried about the possibility of continuing this home-and-home series following the loss, Gillen politely demurred.
Next season, the Mediacom Cyclone Capital Classic will move from Hilton Coliseum to the brand new Iowa Events Center in Des Moines. Don't look for the Cavaliers to make a return trip.