Washington State forward Isaac Jones (13) blocks the shot of...

Washington State forward Isaac Jones (13) blocks the shot of Iowa State guard Keshon Gilbert (10) in the first half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 23, 2024, in Omaha, Neb. Credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall

OMAHA, Neb. — Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger challenged his players at halftime of their NCAA Tournament game against Washington State on Saturday night to remember who they are, along with what had gotten them to the brink of the Sweet 16.

It was a simple speech. And it set in before the Cyclones stepped back on the court.

Immediately cranking up its intensity, Iowa State began to fluster the seventh-seeded Cougars with its in-your-face defense, and that created offense at the other end. Tamin Lipsey proceeded to score 15 points, Curtis Jones had 14 and the Cyclones went on to a 67-56 victory that sent them into the second weekend for the second time in three years.

“I think our guys are a very together and poised group,” Otzelberger said. “We know we’re going to have adversity, and credit Washington State for doing a great job putting us on our heels. But credit to our guys for not panicking, not getting too low or emotional, and staying the course, waiting for it to come back around to us.”

Now, the Cyclones will face No. 3 seed Illinois in the East Region semifinals Thursday night in Boston.

“We knew it would take our very best today,” Otzelberger said, “and we were fortunate in the second half we had that.”

Jaylen Wells scored 20 points and Myles Rice had 13 for the Cougars (25-10), who romped past South Dakota State in the first round but were banished back to the Palouse still searching for their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2008.

Iowa State head coach T. J. Otzelberger cheers for his...

Iowa State head coach T. J. Otzelberger cheers for his team as they played against Washington State in the first half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 23, 2024, in Omaha, Neb. Credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall

“So proud of the way our guys competed,” Washington State coach Kyle Smith said. “We knew we were going against the Big 12 champs, a top-five team, and we were unintimidated. We've played teams like that. We just didn't play well enough to win.”

They did in the first half.

Iowa State spent most of the early going in shambles thanks to what Smith calls “the shawmbles,” a suffocating style of defense named for associate head coach and defensive whiz Jim Shaw. The Cougars aggressively jumped into passing lanes, harried the Cyclones' shooters on the perimeter and crashed the boards with abandon.

While Iowa State was busy missing 14 of its first 17 shots, Wells was going 7 of 12 in the first half for 16 points, proving the March Madness stage was not too big for a kid playing Division II ball at Sonoma State a year ago.

Iowa State forward Hason Ward (24) gets a dunk over...

Iowa State forward Hason Ward (24) gets a dunk over Washington State forward Oscar Cluff (45) and forward Isaac Jones (13) in the first half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 23, 2024, in Omaha, Neb. Credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall

“We did a good job of handling the pressure, playing really unselfish,” Wells said. “I think that's what it was in the first half.”

The Cyclones finally got going by going downhill. Lipsey and Gilbert attacked the rim, getting layups or drawing fouls, and slowly they crawled back into the game. By the time Hason Ward scored on an alley-oop lay-in in the closing seconds of the half, the Big 12 tourney champs had forged a 27-all tie with the regular-season Pac-12 runner-ups.

“Staying aggressive is the thing that me and Keshon do so well,” Lipsey said, “and that was a big factor as the game got going.”

So were the turnovers. The Cyclones forced five in the first half and eight in the second. More importantly, they turned those 13 turnovers into 21 points, while Washington State only had four off turnovers.

“It was more of what we did, upping our aggressiveness on the defensive end. In the first half, we were a little too tentative,” the Cyclones’ Tre King said. “We talked about how we only forced five turnovers, and that was unacceptable to us.”

Still, Iowa State only led 51-46 with 7 1/2 minutes left when Lipsey drilled a contested 3-pointer. Isaac Jones turned it over at the other end for Washington State, and King added a basket to make it a 10-point game. A few minutes later, Rice sent another pass skipping into the backcourt, and a bucket by Curtis Jones pushed the Cyclones' lead to 59-48 with 3 1/2 minutes to go.

By that point, desperation had set in for the Cougars. They were on their way home and Iowa State on its way to the Sweet 16.

“We're thankful every day. And today is no different,” Smith said. “We started five years ago trying to build this into something, and two NITs and now an NCAA Tournament — an NCAA Tournament win. I was unaware, but people said we didn't belong. So we proved that we belonged, to say the least.”

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Iowa State has not played Illinois since the Maui Invitational in 2018, when the Cyclones won in a rout. Iowa State also won in 2015 in the Emerald Coast Classic in Florida, but before that, the Fighting Illini had won 10 straight in the series.

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