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December 8, 2013

ISU sidesteps UNI bog down

Iowa State almost got Hooiser'ed Saturday, and it wasn't playing Indiana.

No, the Cyclones were playing Northern Iowa, the methodical program that has been the thorn in the foot of ISU basketball for most of the past decade. Fred Hoiberg hadn't beaten UNI in two previous meetings, including once with NCAA tourney teams at Iowa State. For all Hoiberg had gotten done in his first three years as ISU's head coach, beating the Panthers wasn't on the list.

The last time Iowa State beat Northern Iowa? The 2008-09 season with Greg McDermott as head coach, and that took overtime, too, just like Saturday's 91-82 Cyclone victory over UNI in the Big Four Classic. McDermott only beat the Panthers once in four tries and he had their playbook, having coached there before his career detour to Ames.

The last Iowa State coach to beat UNI in regulation? Try Wayne Morgan. And he did it twice, in 2003-04 and 2005-06. But even Morgan's UNI memories aren't all pleasant. His Cyclone team was routed in Cedar Falls by a McDermott-coached Panther team, 99-82, in the 2004-05 season. That was an ISU NCAA tournament team, by the way.

That game featured the infamous sideline shouting match between Morgan and McDermott, who had no idea at the time that they would both be ex-Iowa State head coaches just a few short years later.

So it's been since the Larry Eustachy era that Iowa State routinely handled Northern Iowa. After Saturday's win, ISU leads the all-time series, 36-12, so before the 2000s, a Panther win over the Cyclones was rarer than a warm day in January. There's no one in Cyclone Country who wouldn't love to see things return to "how they should be."

The recently familiar storyline was playing out just as UNI head coach Ben Jacobsen would have scripted it for just over a half of Saturday's game at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. The Panthers' deliberate pace lessened possessions and limited Iowa State's ability to crank up the tempo like it is want to do. Northern Iowa gave Iowa State room to shoot from outside, hoping the Cyclones would struggle to find the range inside the Well. It struggled. And at halftime, ISU was looking up at a 42-29 deficit.

Things got worse before they got better. Iowa State went down by as many as 18 points before roaring back with a 23-2 run to take the lead. Even then, UNI wouldn't give up its plan and the Panthers tied the game at 71-71 on a banked three-pointer by Seth Tuttle to send the game to overtime.

Often the team that climbs the big mountain of being way down and getting it to overtime has nothing left in the tank to finish the job. That wasn't the case for Iowa State on Saturday as it put up a whopping 20 points in the extra five-minute session. After halftime, the Cyclones outscored Northern Iowa, 62-40, the kind of 25-minute skein that any team would take against almost any opponent.

And UNI has earned the right to not be considered just any opponent. The Panthers are not as good this year as they have been in recent years, but they can still play the Hickory Husker card against a faster and more talented team. And they still have the chip on their shoulder of having home-and-home series with Iowa State taken away and replaced with every-other-year meetings in Des Moines. They'll be a little chapped by that for a while and will use it to their advantage.

The stage is now set for Iowa State vs. Iowa in Ames on Friday night. It will be the first time the teams have met as ranked opponents since 1987, a game that proved to be even better than anyone could have thought possible. There will be countless flashback features on the "Lafester Game" this week and anyone who is old enough to have seen it and experience it will tell you that the superlatives don't exist to really capture what a game it was. Has it really been 26 years?



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