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A new threat rises in Big 12: Iowa State topples No. 1 UNC

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PORTLAND, Oregon — If only this were March.

The story wouldn’t change, but the importance of this victory by this coach and player would have been a national headline.

Instead, Iowa State can file away its 70-65 win over No. 1 North Carolina on Friday in the Phil Knight Legacy semifinals as one to remember.

T.J. Otzelberger, the unassuming head coach of Iowa State, nearly broke down multiple times in his postgame interview while describing what this win meant to him. His star player on this day after Thanksgiving, senior Caleb Grill, didn’t shed a tear but used the same verbiage to describe the victory.

“I love Iowa State,” said Otzelberger. “I want to build the program for the long haul. This is for life. I’m living my dream.”

A few minutes later in the hallway outside the news conference, Grill, who scored 31 points and buried seven 3s, said: “It’s like a dream come true.”

And here’s why: Iowa State reclaimed its spot on the national college basketball scene a year ago under Otzelberger, the former assistant at Iowa State under three different coaches — Greg McDermott, Fred Hoiberg and Steve Prohm — who bleeds Cyclone colors.

Otzelberger jumped at the chance to take this head coaching job after stints at South Dakota State (three seasons) and UNLV (two). He had recruited Grill to the Jackrabbits where Grill originally signed. But when Otzelberger went to UNLV, Grill re-opened the recruitment and ended up at Iowa State playing for Prohm. That lasted one season before he went to UNLV, only to bounce back to Ames with Otzelberger last season.

“We go back a lot of years to his sophomore year in high school,” said Otzelberger. “He hadn’t shot the ball well the first few games, but he stayed the course and was ready. He really does the work.

“We were supposed to be at South Dakota State,” said Otzelberger about why he was emotional thinking about Grill’s contributions in this win. “I got to thinking about how important Iowa State means to me, my family, my wife played there and my kids are growing up there. It’s moments like this that I think about the gratitude and thankfulness.”

Grill is hardly All-Airport at only 6-3, 200 pounds. He’s not going to intimidate anyone during warmups. But he gets it done and picks his moments. He averaged 2.1, 9.1 and 6.4 points in his first three seasons. He’s only averaging 7.3 this season, and he was shooting 16.7% on 3s entering Friday’s game.

No matter. All he did was find the openings on the perimeter against the top-ranked Tar Heels to go 7-for-11 on 3s, and 11-for-15 overall.

Grill credited the 5:40 a.m. workouts in September, as well as the unity of a team that played in the Sweet 16 a year ago and has meshed transfers (Jaren Holmes via St. Bonaventure had 22 points) quite well already this season. He simply answered the call to bury shots when needed.

“I never grew up super fast,’’ said Grill. “I was smaller. I was always under the radar. I like being under the radar, being the hard worker, and being the glue guy for the team. That’s where I see myself. I just had a good night tonight.”

Iowa State still has a title game to play Sunday. Games against St. John’s and at Iowa are on tap the first week in December before the Big 12 opens.

The Cyclones are going to continue to be a player in the Big 12 due to the intensity, the defensive stinginess and the grit that they play with under Otzelberger’s watch.

“TJ is a special person,” said Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard. “I have known him since we first met 17 years ago as a young assistant. During that time I have watched him grow professionally. However, he has never lost the unique ability to connect with people. He is so sincere and caring. That is why he connects so well with our players and fans. His emotion is real.”

As for North Carolina, there is no reason to fret. The Tar Heels did play with fire in a close win over Portland on Thursday. And they had multiple chances to close out Iowa State before losing leads. Sure, they will have to play Sunday and go to Indiana Wednesday. But the addition of Pete Nance (via Northwestern) to replace Brady Manek has proven to be quite the find.

“We lost the game in the last two minutes,” said preseason all-American Armando Bacot of Carolina. “They made plays, we didn’t.”

The Tar Heels will drop from No. 1 on Monday, but they aren’t disappearing. This is part of the process of a run to another Final Four.

“We’re getting everybody’s best shot,” said Bacot. “Last year, I couldn’t tell you who was No. 1 at this time of the year. We will grow from it. There is a lot of basketball left to be played, and we will get better.

“We can’t hide,” said Bacot. “We’re playing a big-time team next and then at Indiana in a hostile environment Wednesday. We just have to stay together and become more of a team.”

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Andy Katz is a longtime college basketball writer, analyst and host. He can be seen on the Big Ten Network, as well as March Madness and NCAA.com, and he hosts the podcast “March Madness 365.” Katz worked at ESPN for nearly two decades and, prior to that, in newspapers for nine years.


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