Iowa State’s loss caps off historic era

Monte Morris has the ball stripped away from him while driving through the lane against Purdue in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on March 19, 2017, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Iowa State fell to the Boilermakers 80-76, ending its season.

Luke Manderfeld

MILWAUKEE — The Cyclones went out in the same fashion that defined them for the past six years. 

What characterized this group of seniors — Naz Mitrou-Long, Matt Thomas and Monté Morris and, for the last two seasons, Deonte Burton — was resiliency. The winningest class in school history created a culture of comebacks, dating all the way back to 2014, when Mitrou-Long hit a 3-pointer to tie a game against Oklahoma State, leading to a triple-overtime victory. 

And it was that resiliency that gave the Cyclones a fighting chance Saturday night.

Down 13 at halftime in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Purdue, the Cyclones weren’t just going to go away. Throughout this recent era of basketball, Iowa State has made almost every game feel like a roller coaster.

And the fans could feel it. There was a buzz inside the Bradley Center.

After falling behind by as much as 19 to open the second half, Iowa State took control, coming within a possession with about 10 minutes to play. Senior Deonte Burton pushed and scored seven straight points, keeping the Cyclones within striking distance. 

“I did not want to go home,” Burton said. “I didn’t want to feel the feeling of losing. So I did everything I could to try and win.” 

But that feeling of losing inevitably crept up on the Cyclones, as Purdue put in response after response. 

And the comeback, which has been a hallmark of Iowa State basketball, fell short.

No. 5 Iowa State (24-11, 12-6 Big 12) fell to No. 4 Purdue (27-7, 14-4 Big Ten) 80-76, ending the careers of seniors that led the program to three Big 12 Tournament titles, two Sweet 16s and four consecutive 20-win seasons.

“I spoke volumes about the character of our seniors because we wouldn’t be where we are right now without them,” coach Steve Prohm said. “They had a renaissance of Iowa State basketball. They brought it back.”

Many didn’t know how the 2016-17 season would turn out or how the roster was going to look. Morris almost left for the NBA Draft. Mitrou-Long was set to leave before hip problems forced him to redshirt last season. The Cyclones were picked to finish behind Texas in the Big 12 preseason poll. 

There were a lot of question marks. And those questions started getting louder as the team entered February with a 4-4 record in the Big 12 and a 13-8 record overall. 

But that resiliency shined through. The Cyclones won 11 of their next 13 games and won the Big 12 Tournament title. They won 24 games, which seemed so far out of reach in January.

In some ways, Iowa State’s loss to Purdue was a microcosm of the entire season — coming back after being knocked down early. 

On Saturday night, the Cyclones were outmatched in the post, which led to some trouble on both sides of the court. The Boilermakers’ two big men, Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas, scored 19 of the team’s 42 first-half points. Iowa State went into halftime down 13 points, just shooting 3-for-11 from beyond the arc.

It didn’t get better to start the second half. 

Purdue pushed the lead to 19, but the Cyclones started to chip away, cutting the lead down to 12, then single digits, then within a single possession. But that first half-deficit proved to be too much, as the Boilermakers moved into the Sweet 16 in Kansas City, Missouri. 

The loss won’t take away from the senior class’ success. The last six years of Iowa State basketball will go down as one of the best eras in program history.

And, just like on Saturday, this recent period will be defined by resiliency and a knack to bounce back when many have signaled your demise.  

“You just believe, man,” Mitrou-Long said. “Over the last four to five years, that’s been our motto. We’ve been known as the comeback kids, and I apologize to all of the fans for all of the heartaches we’ve been giving them over the years.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything because it was the most special time of my life. We just believed. We believed.”