Battle-tested No. 2 Iowa State faces No. 7 Washington State

League: NCAA Basketball

Posted on: 23 Mar, 2024 at 01:50 AM

Credit: Samantha Laurey / Argus Leader / USA TODAY NETWORK

Iowa State is often mentioned as a team that might be playing for a Final Four berth next weekend. Those opinions certainly have merit.

The second-seeded Cyclones (28-7) are battle-tested from the tough Big 12 slate and recently drubbed then-No. 1 Houston by 28 points.

But seventh-seeded Washington State (25-9) has no interest in rolling over and the Cougars will aim to upset Iowa State in front of a likely pro-Cyclone crowd in East Region play on Saturday in Omaha, Neb.

The Cougars advanced with a 66-61 first-round victory Thursday over Drake, another school from Iowa that was loaded with cheering fans due to the site's proximity.

Now, Washington State is riding momentum after winning an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2008.

"I think a lot of our identity comes from defense," said Cougars forward Jaylen Wells, who had 17 points and nine rebounds against Drake. "We never lose confidence in anyone else. We have our captains -- they always keep us together, always motivating us. We never get down. We're always together. We're always a family, on and off the court."

Isaac Jones contributed 20 points and 11 rebounds and Isaiah Watts made the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:51 left.

"It felt great off the hands," Watts said. "I feel like that's a shot I've hit pretty much all year -- that wing. It felt like a routine shot. He didn't have a hand up, and I really saw over him. So I just shot it."

The Cougars could use an improved performance from Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Myles Rice. He had just nine points on 3-of-12 shooting from the floor against Drake and has made just 15 of 47 shots (31.9 percent) over the past four games.

Iowa State advanced with an 82-65 victory over South Dakota State in the opening round.

The Cyclones have won eight of their past nine games but coach T.J. Otzelberger is well aware even hot teams can have their March Madness bubble popped.

"It's not going to get easier," Otzelberger said. "You're playing a lot of different defensive schemes and things people are doing to try to disrupt that.

"Whether it's a team like (the Jackrabbits) that tries to plug on some guys and jam up the paint or the pressure we play against with a team like Houston, it's important that our guys core off of our defense or we have the mental fortitude to play longer possessions where everybody is touching the ball."

Iowa State is known for its balance and five players scored in double digits against South Dakota State. Milan Momcilovic led the way with 19 points and Tamin Lipsey added 17 points and seven assists.

The performance of Momcilovic was crucial and followed an 18-point outing against Houston. He is 14 of 26 from the field in the past two games.

But prior to that, he shot below 40 percent in 10 of the previous 11 games. He reached double digits in scoring just three times during the stretch.

"I was struggling," Momcilovic said of the 29-for-92 stretch. "I feel like I was letting the team down. The team needs me on the offensive end, so staying confident, being aggressive and keep shooting the ball."

Of course, one player's slump isn't a total hindrance when there are five players averaging at least nine points per game.

Meanwhile, Otzelberger is obsessing over the Cougars while others chatter about what lies ahead.

"Right now all that focus is on Washington State," Otzelberger said. "They're a very well-coached team. They're playing with a lot of confidence. They played well late. They've gotten some big wins, so we know all of our focus and energy is committed to doing what we need to do to be successful against them."

--Field Level Media