AMES, Iowa — Iowa State was already in decent shape to earn the NCAA tournament berth that’s eluded the program for seven long years.
After knocking off ninth-ranked Baylor in the regular-season finale, the Cyclones know they won’t have to sweat out Selection Sunday.
Scott Christopherson had 23 points in his final home game and Iowa State rallied to beat No. 9 Baylor 80-72 Saturday night for its second win over a top-10 opponent this season.
Melvin Ejim added 15 points for the Cyclones (22-9, 12-6 Big 12), who also secured the No. 3 seed for next week’s conference tournament.
It’s been quite the turnaround for Iowa State and coach Fred Hoiberg, who’s molded a team picked to finish eighth in the preseason Big 12 poll into a dangerous team in March.
“This was one that we really needed to really show that we deserve to be in the (NCAA) tournament. Picking us as the eight seed in the preseason and locking up that three seed, that was huge for us,” Iowa State guard Chris Babb said. “We took it personal when we saw those rankings came out, and we responded to it very well.”
For Baylor, it let yet another chance to knock off a tough Big 12 foe on the road pass them by.
Baylor led by as much as nine late in the first half, but the Bears went nearly 5 minutes without a point down the stretch. Baylor pulled to 66-64, but Tyrus McGee drilled a 3 with 1:24 left and the Bears followed with a crushing offensive foul.
Pierre Jackson had a career night with 35 points for the Bears (25-6, 12-6), who fell to the fourth seed for the Big 12 tournament.
“I thought we were really doing some good things until they got hot in the second half,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “It didn’t matter what defense we played. We couldn’t guard the ball, we couldn’t stop the 3, and credit them for making some tough shots. But I know defensively, we’ve got to guard a lot better if we’re going to be successful in the postseason.”
Jackson’s typically the one dishing the ball, ranking third in the Big 12 in assists. Against Iowa State, he simply kept it for himself. That strategy worked for a while, but when Jackson’s stroke went cold the Bears didn’t have anyone else to pick him up.
Jackson had 18 points by halftime, and matched his previous career high of 25 with 15:31 left on a confident 18-footer that put the Bears ahead 51-43. The Cyclones wouldn’t go away, as Chris Babb’s heads-up bucket off an errant White pass brought Iowa State within 53-52, but Jackson quickly answered with his fourth 3 of the night.
Jackson hit five of Baylor’s six 3s and was 8 of 9 shooting from the free-throw line.
“We saw the mismatch on the defense, and coach decided that he wanted to exploit it,” said Jackson, who shattered his previous career best of 25 points at Texas on Feb. 20. “My teammates did a good job of getting me some open looks.
But Christopherson gave the Cyclones their first lead of the second half, following a floater with a deep 3 to make it 62-60 with 7:02 left, and Iowa State’s defense made life miserable for the Bears from there. Royce White had 11 points and 11 rebounds for the Cyclones, who scored 50 points in the second half and improved to 10-0 against Baylor at home.
Perry Jones III had 10 points and 12 rebounds for the Bears, who shot just 6 of 24 from 3-point range and were outrebounded 38-35.
“We had some looks, didn’t make baskets. The thing that’s disappointing to me is we didn’t do as good a job on the glass as we’ve done in games past,” Drew said.
The one question that’s dogged Baylor all season is how it’s performed against the league’s best teams.
Four of the Bears’ five losses came against Big 12 heavyweights Kansas and Missouri, and only the one-point loss to the Tigers in Waco last month was even close. Perhaps their best win in league play came against the Cyclones three weeks ago, when Baylor ran away with a 79-64 win.
The Bears took it to the Cyclones early, using their superior size and length to control the boards and keep Iowa State — one of the better teams in the country from the perimeter — from getting comfortable looks. But the Cyclones managed to tie the game 27-all late in the first half, despite hitting just two of their first 13 tries from 3-point range.
Baylor missed their first seven 3-point attempts, but Jackson broke that streak in putting the Bears ahead 30-27. Jackson buried another one, this time after McGee blew a dunk, and Baylor opened up a 37-28 lead.
The Bears had control in the second half, but they let Iowa State hang around just long enough to catch up — then overtake them. Baylor finished just 1-5 against the top three seeds in the Big 12 tournament: Kansas, Missouri and Iowa State.
Baylor joined the league champion Jayhawks as top-10 teams to lose at Hilton Coliseum this season. The Cyclones finished 8-1 at home in the Big 12 this season and, by beating the Bears, appear destined to reach the NCAA tournament no matter what happens in the Big 12 tourney.
Christopherson celebrated his final win in Hilton Coliseum — and what’s set up to be first postseason trip with the Cyclones — by kneeling down and kissing the Iowa State logo at midcourt.
“Hilton’s been good to me — and it’s like real life. Any time a girl is good to you, you’ve got to let her know,” Christopherson said. “I was just telling her thanks.”