With Iowa State clinging to a five-point lead to start the second half on Saturday afternoon, the call went out from a tiny yet spirited gal exhorting her beloved Cyclones while seated behind press row.
It's doubtful that her voice was heard from among the cacophony of a near-sellout crowd at Hilton Coliseum, but the Cyclones certainly played like they were looking to grant her request. Despite coming in with a six-game losing-streak and 0-5 record in the Big 12, ISU played with reckless abandon and never took its foot off the accelerator in an inspiring 74-66 upset of 13th-ranked Oklahoma.
The Sooners are no longer alone in first place in the conference, the thought of which sent a frustrated Coach Kelvin Sampson to the visitor's locker room before the game was even a final. Iowa State improves to 9-8 overall heading into Tuesday's home date with Baylor.
"I'm real excited for my guys," ISU Coach Wayne Morgan said. "I'm happy to see them play the way they can play. This gives us a big lift. We've been coming close a lot and had really only played poorly in three of our 17 games. Now we're learning to finish."
ISU's first and only win in the month of January was the result of a tenacious defense that never let up despite a dearth of depth. Morgan cleverly massaged his seven-man rotation, giving key players extra blows in the moments before television timeouts. That, plus another raucous crowd, allowed the Cyclones to maintain their best level of defensive intensity this season. ISU, which leads the Big 12 in steals, had 13 takeaways, nine of which came in the second half.
ISU also held the Sooners to 41 percent shooting from the field. Sure, Oklahoma's 9-for-26 performance from three-point range aided the defensive effort, but the home-team deserves a lot of the credit for contesting nearly every perimeter look Oklahoma had in the game.
"Our defense was incredible," Morgan said. "We maybe made six or seven mistakes defensively the entire game."
The tenacious defense finally correlated into some easy points on the offensive end. True, ISU still can't throw it in the ocean from downtown, but when you outscore the Sooners 48-28 in the paint it doesn't matter. In fact, 70 of ISU's 74 points came either up close or from the free throw line. That's a big reason why the Cyclones notched their best offensive output since scoring 92 points against Howard on December 12th.
So far under Morgan, ISU's formula for victory is: defensive intensity, a stalemate on the offensive glass, valuing of the basketball, and a distinct advantage in points off turnovers and fast break points.
And guess what? Against the hottest team in the league the last-place Cyclones accomplished each one of those goals. Besides the terrific defense that kept the crowd on its feet all afternoon, ISU was only minus-2 in offensive rebounds, had more steals than turnovers, and dominated in fast break points (16-4) and points off of turnovers (22-8).
"We're getting better," senior captain Jared Homan said. "We didn't have one guy that didn't contribute for us. But it's just one game. We want to put a string of four or five in a row together."
ISU's bench got thinner with Anthony Davis in street clothes and likely out for the season because of a nagging shoulder injury that requires surgery. That meant the so-called supporting cast – see that as players not named Homan, Curtis Stinson, and Will Blalock – would be required to step up for a change if the Cyclones had any hopes of pulling the upset and snapping their losing streak.
And step up they did.
Damion Staple scored ISU's first six points, including a thunderous dunk over Oklahoma's dynamic inside duo of Kevin Bookout and Taj Gray that sent an early message the Cyclones were here to battle the physical Sooners. He also added three steals. Tasheed Carr played his best game so far as a Cyclone. The freshman was assertive, sometimes almost too much so, and finished with nine points and four rebounds. And Rahshon Clark was all over the floor with a game-high four steals, a team-high eight rebounds, and 10 points.
How big of an impact did "The Others" have for the Cyclones? Well neither Stinson and Blalock scored until the 7:17 mark of the first half, but ISU already had built a 17-11 lead nonetheless.
"Tasheed and Clark were outstanding for us," Morgan said. "Carr has the ultimate confidence, there is no fear in Tasheed. Damion got us off to a great start."
Yet it still came down to Stinson and Blalock at winning time. Stinson had just four points at halftime, but he correctly asserted himself in the second half when ISU needed a lift and finished with a game-high 23 points. More importantly, he had just two turnovers in 38 minutes and smiled more on the court than he has all season. Not bad for a guy playing with a torn ligament in his hand and a stretched ligament in his leg.
Blalock played a solid floor game as well with 11 points, three steals, five assists, and just two turnovers in 35 minutes. He also made several key free throws in the game.