By Steve Wieberg
Iowa State won for the first time in the Big 12 tournament in eight years – and extinguished any lingering doubts about its place in the NCAA's 68-team field – storming from behind in the final 9½ minutes to down Oklahoma 73-66.
The Cyclones took off when Will Clyburn did. The 6-7 senior scored 13 of his 17 points in a pivotal six-minute, seven-second stretch that saw Iowa State erase a 13-point deficit. Clyburn's three-point play with 3:19 left moved them ahead for the first time, 63-62. Teammate Melvin Ejim turned in his conference-best 14th double-double of the season: 23 points and 12 rebounds.
Iowa State, the nation's most prolific three-point shooting team, didn't hit its first trey until barely a minute remained in the first half, and missed 16 of its first 18 attempts. But the Cyclones were 5-for-8 behind the line in the final, decisive 9:26.
Fifth-seeded Iowa State was teetering as the game entered the final 10 minutes, a three-point play by Oklahoma's Cameron Clark putting the Sooners up 56-43.
Clyburn, coming off a 27-point, 10-rebound performance in the Cyclones' regular-season finale at West Virginia, had been quiet. Held to just four points.
With a three-pointer off a feed by point guard Korie Lucious, the 6-7 senior erupted. He was fouled on a putback, and hit both free throws to cut the deficit to five points, 60-55. He banked in a shot to cut it to three, then nailed another trey to tie it 60-60 with 4:11 remaining. A sizable Iowa State contingent roared in Kansas City's Sprint Center.
Clyburn's three-point play with a little more than three minutes left finally put the Clones up.
Earlier in the season, he said, "I had a tendency of going (in)to my shell when things weren't going right. But my teammates and coaching staff, they stayed on me.
"I just wanted to play hard. Even if I wasn't scoring the ball, I wanted to do something to help the team through rebounding, defending, being a good teammate."
Oklahoma's Sam Grooms hit a foul shot to re-tie it, 63-63, but Iowa State senior Tyrus McGee – the Big 12's top sixth man – answered with a three-pointer and, moments later, Ejim banked home a shot to move the Cyclones up by four, 68-64.
When Chris Babb knocked down the Clones' final trey, from well behind the top of the key to make it 71-66 with 34.9 seconds left, the surge was complete.
Iowa State (22-10) did more than find its collective shooting eye from the field. The Cyclones hit all 14 of their free throws. In the final 20 minutes, they coughed up just five turnovers. Most tellingly, they outrebounded the bigger Sooners 24-11 in the second half, and finished with 18 second-chance points.
"We knew we had our back against the wall, Ejim said, "and we just started playing harder than they did."
On defense, as well. Fourth-seeded Oklahoma (20-11) didn't make a field goal in the final eight-plus minutes. Senior forward Romero Osby scored 18 points in the first 30 minutes, none in the final 10.
"They were quicker to the loose balls. They played a little bit harder," Grooms said of the Cyclones. "And, I mean, point-blank they made shots towards the end. Shots they were missing in the first half, they continued to shoot and they made them towards the end of the game."
"Tough ballgame to lose," coach Lon Kruger said.
Does the defeat, on the heels of a upset loss at lowly TCU five days earlier, give the Sooners reason to fret about Sunday's announcement of the NCAA tournament bracket? They finished the regular season in a fourth-place tie with Iowa State, both at 11-7, and split games against the Cyclones in February and early March.
Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione is on the selection committee but, by protocol, can't take part in any discussion of OU.
"We played good basketball. We made good progress," said Kruger, who has orchestrated a turnaround from OU's 15-16 finish a year ago. "…Obviously, a lot of it depends on upsets and other games. But I'd like to think this group's deserved an opportunity."
Iowa State meets top-seeded Kansas, a 91-63 winner of Texas Tech, in the semifinals at 6:30 p.m. CT Friday.