Iowa State has its biggest win yet.
After knocking off Kansas and Baylor during the regular season, the Cyclones kicked off their first NCAA tournament appearance in seven years by beating defending champion Connecticut 77-64 on Thursday night.
“I feel like just we wanted it more,” said Chris Allen, who led the Cyclones with 20 points, including a clutch bucket with 4:15 to play that ended any chance UConn had of rallying. “I felt like we were doing everything we needed to.”
And then some. Three other Cyclones finished in double figures; Royce White had a double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds, and Scott Christopherson also had 15. Iowa State shot 48 percent from the floor and had a whopping 41-24 edge in rebounds, and the Cyclones scored their last 14 points at the free throw line.
It was the first time since UCLA in 1996 that the defending champion had lost their first game and was only the second loss in the opening game for Connecticut.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun didn’t even wait for the final buzzer, heading for halfcourt with about four seconds left to congratulate Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.
“I’m surprised as anybody, clearly,” he said. “I imagine our players are, too.”
Not eighth-seeded Iowa State.
Despite a bad loss to Texas in last week’s Big 12 tournament, the Cyclones arrived in Louisville with no shortage of swagger, smirking when asked if they were intimidated by the defending national champions. And they wasted no time backing up their big talk, jumping on the Huskies from the opening tip.
It took Calhoun less than two minutes before he’d seen enough, jumping up to call a timeout.
“We wanted to attack the boards more and whatever 3s we got, we took,” Allen said. “At the end of the day, we were trying to get it in, get rebounds and do all the little stuff.”
Next up for Iowa State: Overall No. 1 seed Kentucky in the third round of the South Regional on Saturday. The Wildcats routed Western Kentucky earlier on Thursday.
For the Huskies, the future is far less certain. This could be Connecticut’s last tournament until at least 2014, with the Huskies facing a ban on tournament play next year because of the past academic problems. Although Calhoun insists he hasn’t made any retirement plans, he’s had a history of health problems — he’s a three-time cancer survivor and missed a month with back pain — and he turns 70 in May.
“This game was a disappointment; this season was not a disappointment to me,” Calhoun said. “I knew this team could be really good, but we just didn’t reach that level.”
Shabazz Napier led the Huskies with 22, and Jeremy Lamb had 19. But Connecticut could never get into a rhythm and had no answer for the quicker, more aggressive Cyclones.
“It’s very disappointing to have to end the season this way,” Napier said.
After leading by as much as 22 in the first half, Iowa State (23-10) withstood a UConn rally in the second half. Ryan Boatright went on a one-man tear, making three straight baskets to pull Connecticut within 58-52 with 8:24 to play.
“Once we cut it to six, I felt like if we dug down a little deeper maybe it would crack,” Boatright said.
But the Huskies (20-14) couldn’t get any closer, missing their next four shots and going scoreless for more than five-and-a-half minutes.
Iowa State, meanwhile, got a big layup from Bubu Palo and an even bigger bucket from Allen.
Allen has played more NCAA tournament games than any player in the 68-team field after making back-to-back Final Fours with Michigan State in 2009 and 2010, and his experience showed. He chased down his miss on a 3 from the corner and went up and under the basket, scoring to put Iowa State back in front 63-52 with 4:15 to play.
“Scoring in clutch situations always boosts your team’s momentum,” Allen said. “That’s what I felt like it did and helped us just get back on track.”
UConn could never make another run, and all the Cyclones had to do was convert their free throws. As the game wound down, White pointed at Iowa State’s radio crew and said, “I told you, didn’t I?”