They say that there is magic inside the concrete walls of this place. They say that when 14,384 of the most rabid fans in college basketball gather their collective powers and put them behind their team, the decibels start to bounce off Hilton Coliseum’s wood-paneled ceiling, the court starts to shake, and the most unexpected things begin to happen before your very eyes.
With 27 seconds left on Monday night, the Iowa State Cyclones — a team that’s ranked 19th in the nation but has stumbled through the beginning of Big 12 play, as three early January losses put its fan base on edge — had a chance to do something that had never happened in the 45 years of this magical place: Beat the No. 1-ranked team in the country. Iowa State had done that exactly once in the school’s history, back in 1957 against Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas Jayhawks, before there was a Hilton Coliseum, but here they were, tied at 75 with top-ranked Oklahoma and the remarkable Buddy Hield, coming out of a timeout with 27 seconds to play and having a chance to win.
“You feel the floor give you a little tingle, man,” Iowa State junior point guard Monte Morris said in a private moment after the game, leaning against a wall in the bowels of Hilton Coliseum. “You feel it. You feel it. It’s real. You feel it on the court. It’s a tough feeling to explain. It’s a vibration. It gets you going.”
The magic came when Morris grabbed the inbounds, dribbled to his right, jabbed a few feet inside the 3-point arc then lofted a shot while fading away: Nothing but net.
That wasn’t all the magic left inside this place, because there were still 21 seconds left on the clock, and Hield was still on the floor. The magic came again a few seconds later, when, after a wild Hield miss, Oklahoma’s Isaiah Cousins — who had 26 points and hadn’t missed a 3-point attempt on the night — had the ball get swatted straight to him. He had a wide open three to take the lead with 10 seconds left — like, wiiiiide open, with nobody even contesting the shot. But it went left, far left, and the rebound bounced straight to Morris, who got fouled and then smiled a 10,000-watt smile: “There’s some magic playing in there,” he said later.
For the fifth time this season, the No. 1 team in the nation went down. Three of those times were to teams in this flyover state: North Carolina at the hands of Northern Iowa, Michigan State at the hands of Iowa, and now Oklahoma at the hands of Iowa State.
Perhaps no place in the country is a better setting for one more night of the most chaotic college basketball season in recent memory. Not since the 2008-09 season have more than five teams been ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll over the course of a season; we’ve already had five different No. 1 teams lose, and we’re still in January. Hilton Coliseum is a place that’s always ripe for upsets and crazy comebacks: The setting for last season’s 21-point comeback against this same Oklahoma team, or for this season’s 20-point comeback against cross-state rival (and current top-10 team) Iowa, or for Monday night’s magic.
Nine hours after the Sooners were ranked No. 1 for the first time since 1990, they lost to a team that was desperate for a big-time win. Now the Sooners head to Baylor, ranked 13th in the country, for a Saturday matinee.
“That’s Big 12 basketball,” Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said with a shrug.
It was an epic game, worthy of its slay-the-giant billing. Iowa State has been porous at best on defense all season, yet Matt Thomas led the charge to hold Hield, the nation’s hottest player, to 27 points. It may not seem like much to “hold” someone to 27 points, except when you consider he only made 10 of his 23 shots. He had scored 46 points on the same number of shots in the triple-overtime loss to Kansas two weeks ago.
“We get killed and ridiculed for our defense (but) you hold Oklahoma to 77 points and 42 percent shooting — I’m proud of our guys,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said.
Anything Hield lacked, though, was made up for by Cousins, who was absolutely on fire with those 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting. Yet Iowa State — one of the nation’s most experienced teams, with one of the nation’s shortest benches — spread out its scoring. Morris dropped an efficient 20 (8 of 12 from the floor, 3 of 4 free throws), as did Abdel Nader (5 of 10, 10 of 12). Georges Niang, who was involved in a physical game-long battle with Hield’s bumpy defense, scored 22 points in just about every way possible. Jameel McKay made it tough for Oklahoma near the basket, grabbing 13 rebounds and blocking four shots. It was the most complete, wire-to-wire performance of the season for a team that’s been as tantalizing as it’s been inconsistent.
At the end of the game, though, it could have gone either way. But there was a little bit more magic left inside these walls. After an easy Cousins layup brought the Sooners to within two with 3.4 seconds left, Oklahoma called a timeout. On the ensuing Iowa State inbounds, nobody was guarding Niang, who was inbounding the ball. So Iowa State dialed up a brilliant play it had used once before this season: Thomas ran to the baseline and hopped out of bounds on the other end of the basket from Niang. The plan was for Niang to pass it to Thomas out of bounds — a legal play — and then for Thomas to pass the ball straight back to an unguarded Niang after he stepped over the baseline and onto the court of play. But Cousins reached over the baseline and touched Thomas as he grabbed at the ball. That’s a technical foul.
When the ref blew the whistle, “I didn’t know what had happened,” Prohm said. “I was scared to death that I had screwed up the whole game up for a second.”
He hadn’t. If anything, it was a brilliant play that caught Kruger’s well-coached team completely unaware, a piece of tactical magic that ended up ensuring that for the fifth time this season the No. 1 team went down.
There’s no telling what this Iowa State team will do for the rest of this season. It may have been the game where the Cyclones turned a corner on defense and gained some confidence after a rough stretch; it may be just an anomalous piece of Hilton Magic that gets chalked up to the weird things that happen inside this building. One thing is for certain: In a chaotic college basketball season that’s filled with a whole bunch of really good teams but no single team that would be considered elite, it’s a moment that will be repeated again and again, in places around the country that try to conjure up their own sorts of magic, until it’s time for the NCAA Tournament, when an entirely new type of magic will begin.
After the fans filed out and the coaches gave their news conferences, Thomas, who was the game’s biggest defensive force by pestering Hield all night, stood outside the locker room, surrounded by a half-dozen reporters.