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Iowa State Daily

Milan Momcilovic back to his old self, leads Cyclones to Big 12 title

Tyler Coe
Milan Momcilovic shoots a three point jumper at the men’s basketball Big 12 Championship game against Houston, T-Mobile Center, Kansas City, March 16, 2024.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Before the final game of the regular season, Milan Momcilovic looked right into the camera at a press conference and made a statement to everyone. To the reporters, to his team, to Iowa State fans everywhere and to the entire nation.

“I promise you soon, this game or postseason play, I’m gonna start playing better. I’m gonna start knocking down some shots,” Momcilovic said.

The game he was referring to was the final road matchup against Kansas State. In that game, Momcilovic went on to end with zero points, missing both his shots from the field and not attempting a single 3-pointer.

That was the first game in Momcilovic’s career that he scored zero points. Despite that, Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger’s confidence in him never wavered.

“He needs to get himself going. He’s one of the best, if not the best, freshmen in this league, and everybody knows it,” Otzelberger said.

Iowa State’s marksman was going through a shooting slump that eclipsed a month. Momcilovic said he had experienced shooting slumps at times, as every basketball player experiences, but nothing more than a week or two.

By the time Momcilovic got to Kansas City, Missouri, for the Big 12 Tournament, it had been one month since he had knocked down over a third of his 3-point attempts. It had been a month since he had a game worth remembering.

Otzelberger noticed how Momcilovic was struggling. He also knew that Momcilovic could get through it.

“He’s going to step up for us,” Otzelberger said.

Otzelberger said that going into the tournament. However, it would not be until the second game that Momcilovic broke his slump.

After the revenge win over Kansas State in the quarterfinals, Momcilovic left the court with another rough night from beyond the arc. Zero of his five shots fell.

Again, even with another off night, Momcilovic was still confident.

“I haven’t been shooting the ball well as of late but doesn’t matter, gotta keep that in the past and look forward and keep shooting,” Momcilovic said.

In the last 10 games, Momcilovic had only knocked down five 3-pointers. He had put the ball up 33 times. In a 12-game stretch dating back to the previous matchup with Baylor, the team he would face again, he had only knocked seven total 3-pointers. That number would come up later after Momcilovic hoisted the trophy.

Despite that, Momcilovic’s coaches and teammates continued to believe in him and continued to tell him to stay aggressive. His time would come if he just stayed aggressive.

Milan Momcilovic and Curtis Jones smile as Cade Kelderman’s name is announced for a sub during the final minutes of the Big 12 men’s basketball tournament game against Kansas State, T-Mobile Center, Kansas City on March 14, 2024. (Jacob Rice)

“You ain’t gonna hit all your shots every game, but some days you will,” Curtis Jones said.

After the first game against Kansas State, where he shot 0-for-5 from deep, he promised to make a three in the next game.

When Iowa State got the ball on its first possession, Momcilovic shook his defender and got open in the corner. As he caught the pass and quickly let the ball fly, silence fell over T-Mobile Center.

Everyone waited to see if the ball would fall. As the ball rattled through the net, a smile lit up on Momcilovic’s face.

Although, at the time, it did not feel like anything special, that would be the shot to break Momcilovic’s slump.

“It definitely felt good, just because I’d been struggling, obviously. So, it felt good to hit that first one,” Momcilovic said.

Not only was that shot important for Momcilovic, but it was the spark that led Iowa State to a lights-out night from beyond the arc. Everyone was hitting because of the momentum from Momcilovic’s shot.

“Shout out to [Momcilovic] for that,” Jones said.

Momcilovic ended the game shooting 3-for-6 from beyond the arc. The last time he hit three 3-pointers in a single game was back in January when the team blew past Kansas.

“Hitting three threes is definitely a good thing, because I can’t remember, honestly, the last time I hit three threes in a game,” Momcilovic said. “It’s been awhile.”

Throughout the win over Baylor, Momcilovic built his confidence back up and built up the trust of his teammates.

When the Cyclones needed a shot to fall, Momcilovic was the go-to guy.

“There was back-to-back possessions late where Keshon [Gilbert] went out of his way to get [Momcilovic] a great shot,” Otzelberger said.

“They see it in practice everyday. They have confidence in him. They know what he can do,” Otzelberger said.

Even with the lights out game, Otzelberger still knew there was more Momcilovic could do. There were times when his confidence slipped, as the shooting slump was still in the back of his mind.

Otzelberger knew the best was yet to come.

“We’ll continue to look for him, and have him be even more aggressive, because I still think today, there were opportunities out there that he passed up that we would like him to take,” Otzelberger said.

As the Cyclones geared up to take on Houston for the Big 12 title, Momcilovic had one goal in mind.

“Just staying aggressive; hunting the shots,” Momcilovic said. “I’m too good of a shooter, and I’ve put too much time in to keep missing.”

It was unclear how Momcilovic would do against Houston early on. On the first possession for Iowa State, Momcilovic caught a pass on the wing. There was not a defender in sight.

Momcilovic hesitated as a Houston defender quickly closed in on him. With the pressure on, he passed the ball away. Shortly after, Otzelberger subbed him out and called him over.

“When he came out early, and he passed up a shot on the wing, I brought him out, and I laid into him a little bit about we need him to be aggressive,” Otzelberger said.

When Momcilovic returned to the game, he had a fire in his eyes. He was not going to pass up another opportunity.

With the trust of his teammates and coaches, he knew he had to just let the ball fly.

“Loved how he handled it from that point forward, because he was so aggressive,” Otzelberger said.

Momcilovic ended the night leading the Cyclones to a massive blowout win over Houston with 18 points, knocking down four of his eight shots from beyond the arc.

Milan Momcilovic cuts down the nets after Iowa State defeated Houston in the Big 12 Championship 69-41 at the men’s basketball Big 12 Championship game against Houston, T-Mobile Center, Kansas City, March 16, 2024. (Tyler Coe)

The most influential shot came early on, as it acted as a spark again in a game that was decided from deep.

Momcilovic caught a pass on the wing and instantly felt a Houston defender bearing down on him. He pump faked, which caused the Houston defender to slip a bit. When Momcilovic noticed that, he spun away, stepped back into the corner and knocked down a three.

From that shot onward, it was clear it was going to be Momcilovic’s night.

“He made so many shots, I can’t even remember which one you talking about, but after every shot he made, I’m like, ‘Yeah man, he good. He special,’” Jones said.

Even during the shooting slump, Momcilovic’s confidence never wavered. He had been clutch in the past and knew he just needed to get back to that.

As games get harder in the postseason, Momcilovic knows how much the team will count on him and how he can meet and even exceed expectations.

“When we’re gonna need a bucket at the end of a game… you can look my way,” Momcilovic said.

As the confetti fell and Momcilovic hoisted the Big 12 Tournament trophy, the smile never left his face.

He had been a part of championship-winning teams in the past, but winning the Big 12 beat out all of that. Even while he was soaking it all in, he still wanted to let the nation know that the Cyclones were not done. They are coming for it all.

“When I knock down shots, when [Jones] knocks down shots, we’re the best team in the country,” Momcilovic said.

As Momcilovic sat in the locker room after the big win, he still had a smile on his face. It was not just because of the big game he had. It was because he was finally back to his old self.

After a month of letting his team and himself down, it was good to regain the confidence he once had.

“I feel like I’m getting back to my old self. It’s been a long month,” Momcilovic said.

After over a month of shooting struggles, Momcilovic was finally starting to see the ball go through the net.

“It feels good just to be back shooting the ball well,” Momcilovic said.

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