ISU's second-half performance wasn't much better. After outscoring Western Illinois 34-15 in the opening 20 minutes, it sputtered down the stretch and made just one field goal in the final 5:28.
"Of a 40-minute game we played 25 minutes of the best that we've played," said Cyclone head coach Larry Eustachy, whose squad advanced to face Binghamton in the title game Saturday night. "It was as impressive as I've seen and certainly better than at anytime last year.
"But we had a real lapse for about 15 minutes. There are some real concerns. Seven assists and 23 turnovers. A lot of people asked me, ‘Who's better, Tim Barnes or Jamaal Tinsley?' Let's just hold off on that and wait until we go through the fire one time. Tim echoed the team at times with lack of concentration, trying to do too much on offense, things that weren't there."
While the Cyclones' sudden drop in production might have surprised many of the 12,427 in attendance, it did not catch Eustachy off guard.
ISU's effort in stretches of its first four games could be described as lackadaisical.
"I knew we couldn't pass the test of in between halves," he said. "I knew we couldn't. We haven't done it in practice yet for long periods of time, so I knew there was no way we could throw 40 minutes out there. We've practiced for two months now. It was what I expected. We made some plays to win the game."
The problem seems to lie in the locker room at halftime. The Cyclones held the Leathernecks to just 23 percent shooting (7-of-31) in the first half, only to see them knock down 8-of-14 attempts in the second.
ISU grabbed a 49-24 lead on a pair of Adam Haluska free throws at the 12:31 mark of the second half. That's when Western Illinois stole the momentum, and went on a 13-0 run over the next 4:36 and cut the deficit to 12.
"We ended up having a lot of turnovers in that period of time," said Marcus Jefferson, who contributed six points and five rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench. "I can't really put a finger on exactly what we did, but we turned the ball over. It's a lack of concentration that caused the turnovers.
"When we go to pre-game meal, all of our assistant coaches stress the approach to the game. During the time period from pre-game to the start, we're really focused on the game. But then I guess we lose focus. We may be up and then our focus on the game drifts off. That's why we come out sluggish sometimes."
For the second consecutive game, junior shooting guard Jake Sullivan picked up the slack for a hot-and-cold group of newcomers. His 19 points and five assists were game-highs. Sullivan also grabbed seven rebounds in his 38 minutes of action.
Barnes and Adam Haluska combined to score 26 points, but fellow first-year starter Jackson Vroman was not as efficient. Foul trouble landed Vroman on the bench for 14 minutes of the game and he finished with just four points on 1-of-4 shooting.
"He played against an organized, well-coached team," Eustachy said. "He had no looseness to him. They had a plan. He didn't get angles and they took his stuff away. He's an average guy right now that has to understand how to play this game at this level."
The Cyclones will battle for a Cyclone Challenge title against Binghamton, which knocked off Denver in the other semifinal game, at 8 p.m. Saturday.