KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Iowa State might not have taken the whole city of Ames to the Big 12 tournament, but it sure looked that way.
When the Cyclones glanced up into the stands at the Sprint Center on Thursday morning, they felt like it was Hilton Coliseum South. Inspired by the droves of fans wearing cardinal and gold colors, the Cyclones looked like the offensive juggernaut they’re capable of being.
With Talen Horton-Tucker amassing 21 points and Marial Shayok hitting 18, the Cyclones made quick work of Baylor for an 83-66 win before 18,930 fans in the Big 12 tournament opener.
“First of all, you’ve really got to credit Iowa State,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “I think everybody knows when they’re on they’re capable of being a Final Four team. I thought we had a couple of breakdowns because they made some shots, and they got confidence.”
The fourth-seeded Bears (19-13) are considered a lock to make the NCAA tournament, but the last thing they wanted was to go in with four straight losses, including setbacks against Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Kansas to end the regular season. The 68-team field will be announced at 5 p.m. Sunday on CBS.
But Drew believes the Bears can benefit from their short stay in the Big 12 tournament because it operates in similar fashion as the NCAA tournament.
“One thing I shared with them was we only had two players in the locker room that had played in a Big 12 tournament before,” Drew said. “That’s not a lot of experience. The best thing the Big 12 does is it runs it just like the NCAA tournament, everything from the police escort to the time to the routine, and hopefully that will allow us to have a better chance to be successful in the next tournament.”
Projected to be an eighth, ninth or 10th seed, the Bears hope they can stick around longer in the NCAA tournament next week. Baylor’s defense will have to improve dramatically after allowing the Cyclones to shoot 51.7 percent overall and 52 percent (13 of 25) from 3-point range.
“I think definitely defensively we’ve got to get better, just guarding the ball individually,” said Baylor guard King McClure. “Overall, we’ve got to play hard for all 40 minutes. Just play as hard as we can and be a tougher team and rebounding the way we did when we were on the winning streak. We’ve got to get back to playing that style of basketball.”
The Cyclones (21-11) came into the game with a three-game losing streak of their own, but they broke out of it in a big way. After the Bears beat them twice in the regular season, the Cyclones weren’t just hot from 3-point range, they repeatedly beat Baylor down the floor for transition points while committing just eight turnovers.
Horton-Tucker got off to a hot start and finished five of nine from 3-point range while Shayok heated up as the game progressed to hit four of seven beyond the arc. The Bears had much more success guarding the Cyclones at the perimeter in the first two games as they hit a combined 15 of 41 from 3-point range.
“Once Horton-Tucker got going and got hot, I thought that really opened up things and really gave them confidence,” Drew said. “In the first two games, we had done a great job at keeping him at bay. They’re a very tough team to guard when they’re making contested shots because they’re very good drivers as well.”
The Iowa State fans gave the Cyclones a huge ovation when coach Steve Prohm pulled the regulars with an 80-60 lead with 2:17 remaining. It was a performance worth celebrating as they advanced to Friday’s semifinals against No. 1 seed Kansas State, a 70-61 winner over eighth-seeded TCU.
“This is an 11:30 a.m. game on a Thursday, so you can imagine what it’s going to be like Friday night at 6,” Prohm said. “We’ve just got an elite fan base that loves their school and loves the sports and have pride in their school. It’s really unreal. It’s surreal.”
With Makai Mason back in the lineup after missing the regular season finale against Kansas with a bruised right toe, the Bears got off to a good start behind the veteran guard’s three 3-pointers in the early minutes. Mason struggled with his shooting as the game progressed as he hit five of 15 field goals, but he still finished with 14 points and five assists.
“I was definitely pretty excited,” Mason said. “Any chance you get to step out on the court and compete is going to be fun. The Big 12 championship (tournament) just to experience that was really cool. It was obviously not the result we were looking for, but a good experience for us and hopefully we can build on that.”
Mason’s inspiration carried the Bears through most of the first half. But when the Cyclones went on a 12-3 run to close the first half and opened the second half with a 12-5 run, their 50-34 cushion was too much for the Bears to overcome.
With the game tied at 26-26, the Cyclones started their streak to end the first half with a pair of free throws by Big 12 sixth man of the year Lindell Wigginton, who constantly drew fouls on quick drives to the baskets. He hit eight of nine free throws and finished with 16 points.
Shayok then fired a pass to Tyrese Halliburton for a layup. The Bears hurt themselves when Freddie Gillespie and Mario Kegler, who led the Bears with 16 points, missed the front end in one-and-one free throw situations.
Horton-Tucker banked a shot for a basket and then stepped outside and drained a 3-pointer to open up a 38-29 halftime lead.
It quickly got worse for the Bears as Halliburton buried a pair of 3-pointers to open the second half. Mason drained a 3-pointer for the Bears, but Michael Jacobson, Nick Weiler-Babb and Halliburton got loose for layups to open up a 50-34 lead five minutes into the second half.
The Cyclones maintained their double-digit lead through most of the rest of the game.
“Definitely they were tough to defend today,” said Baylor guard Devonte Bandoo, who came off the bench for 11 points. “They were making a lot of shots. When a team gets going like that it starts with them seeing the rim at first and getting a good look, which we’ve got to do a better job in the first half of taking that away.”