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Three Big Takeaways: Slow start halts Cyclones’ comeback against No. 2 Houston

Curtis+Jones+scanning+the+court+during+the+Iowa+State+vs+Texas+Tech+game%2C+Hilton+Coliseum%2C+Feb.+17%2C+2024.
Matteo Bender
Curtis Jones scanning the court during the Iowa State vs Texas Tech game, Hilton Coliseum, Feb. 17, 2024.

In a battle to stand alone at the top of the Big 12 standings, a sluggish start highlighted by the No. 6 Cyclones’ failure to take advantage of scoring droughts resulted in a 73-65 loss to No. 2 Houston.

The stage was set for one of the biggest games in recent years for Iowa State, with the likelihood of a Big 12 regular season title in its favor with a win. But as they entered an arena where Houston was undefeated, and had won all of its games by at least 15 points, the Cyclones finished as the newest victim.

Even with more shots falling its way in the second half, a rough start was too much for Iowa State to overcome, as it dropped to 9-4 in the Big 12.

Cyclones survive disastrous start

A pair of turnovers on the Cyclones’ first three possessions set the tone for what was to come in the first 10 minutes of the game. Those turnovers by Iowa State resulted in Houston going up 5-0, which the Cyclones quickly responded to defensively.

Iowa State increased its efforts to clog up the inside, throwing another man inside and nearly forced shot clock violations on back-to-back possessions. It held Houston scoreless for over three minutes after going down by five in the opening two minutes.

Although the Cyclones momentarily slowed down the Cougars, they couldn’t find shots on the other end. Houston got back to what worked for them and worked the ball inside to go on a 6-2 run.

At the midway point of the first half, Houston had built up an 11-point lead due to the Cyclones starting 2-for-13 from the field and having six turnovers.

The Cougars fell into another shooting slump, missing four in a row in the span of four minutes, but Iowa State’s physicality allowed Houston to get its double-digit lead. The Cyclones committed five fouls in that same span, which put the Cougars at the line, which they took advantage of to jump out to a 13-point lead.

Iowa State had dug itself into a hole and were staring at a familiar deficit it had seen in other road contests.

The needed someone to step up offensively, which it found in a familiar hero who came up big in their last battle with Houston.

Freshman Milan Momcilovic sparked the Iowa State offense with seven straight points, which helped keep the game close toward the end of the first half. Benefited by another four-minute field goal drought by Houston, the Cyclones went on a 12-6 run in the final five minutes.

Somehow, after scoring four points in the opening 10 minutes, Iowa State went into halftime only trailing 28-23.

Improved shooting by Iowa State is not enough

The second half started out as a back-and-forth battle with each team not letting the other go on a run. Houston still came out ahead after four minutes as it connected on five of its first six attempts from the field to start the half.

While Houston again took a double-digit lead, 43-32 with 15 minutes left to play, Iowa State was not done fighting and turned to its 3-point attack. After starting 3-for-13 from deep, the Cyclones connected on a trio of 3-pointers in the span of 1:48 to cut the Cougar lead back down to five.

The shot-for-shot pendulum swings continued throughout the second half, and despite continuing to hit from 3-point land, Iowa State could not cut the deficit under five. For a four-minute stretch, a pair of threes from Tre King were each matched by Houston as it continued to find its shots in the second half.

With four minutes left in the game, Iowa State was staring at a nine-point deficit. A Keshon Gilbert three gave the team a chance, but a pair of free throws and a three of their own on the Cougars’ next two possessions put them back up by 11 with less than three minutes left to play.

The Cyclones hit shots down the stretch and put Houston at the line in hopes of pulling off a miracle, but luck was not on their side. Even with hitting 50% of their shots in the second half, including a 7-for-9 outing from 3-point land, the Cyclones’ earlier struggles were too much to overcome.

Free throws hinder Cyclone runs

In an Achilles heel that has been displayed on the road before for the Cyclones, making their free throws was not the main problem, it was getting to the line in general. Iowa State took three attempts from the line in the first half, all of which it connected on, compared to Houston who went 10-for-15.

This discrepancy, although shortened, continued in the second half. The Cougars saw five more opportunities at the charity stripe than the Cyclones, although eight came in the final two minutes when Iowa State was attempting to somehow take control.

In total, the Cyclones finished 10-for-15 from the line compared to Houston’s 24-for-32.

Even though the referees, for the most part, let the top two teams in the conference battle it out, Iowa State’s physicality got the best of it. The Cyclones finished with 21 fouls to Houston’s 18.

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