That Illinois Fighting Illini team that lost to North Florida and Chattanooga earlier in the year? That was not the same team that showed up to battle for the Emerald Coast Classic championship trophy tonight. The Illini were at full strength for only the second time this season, and for about 32 minutes tonight, they gave the No. 4 team in the country all they could handle.
However, the Iowa State Cyclones rallied late behind their All-American forward and star point guard in Georges Niang and Monte Morris, and came away with a 84-73 victory to capture the title in their 2015 non-conference tournament.
Both teams battled back and forth throughout the first half, with neither team able to pull away without the other punching back. At halftime, it was only a one point ISU advantage, 40-39.
The Cyclones and Illini continued to trade blows until there was 6:46 left in the game. That's when Illinois began puckering and Iowa State's experience started to shine through.
Morris nailed a mid-range jumper that sparked a 10-0 ISU run, aided by a focused effort on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. From that 6:46 mark until the end of the game, the Cyclones outscored the Illini 19-11 to put it away and remain perfect on the season.
Tournament MVP honors went to Morris, whose final stat line in the championship game was 20 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. Morris also had zero turnovers on the night, making it two games in Florida against Power 5 opponents without a single turnover for the junior point guard.
Niang had a great night scoring the ball as well, contributing a team-high 23 points on 10-15 shooting from the field to go along with 8 rebounds. While Morris and Niang will receive most of the credit for the win, Abdel Nader had himself a game as well, tallying 18 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and multiple dunks that made the announcers go UHHHHHHHHH.
The leading contributor off the bench for ISU was Matt Thomas, who scored 10 points and grabbed 3 boards.
This win served as a great test for the Cyclones, as the Illini at full strength looked like they could make some noise in the Big Ten this year. Don't be surprised to see John Groce's squad in the NCAA Tournament come March.
The next game for Iowa State is back in the friendly confines of Hilton Coliseum on Tuesday night. The Cyclones will go up against the North Dakota State Bison in a game that tips at 7 p.m. and can be viewed on Cyclones.TV