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Matt Zimmer: Iowa State was too much for the Jackrabbits, and might be too much for a lot of other teams

Mar. 21—OMAHA, Neb. — South Dakota State's NCAA tournament losing streak grew to seven on Thursday with an 82-65 loss to Iowa State and former coach T.J. Otzelberger.

This was not an unexpected result.

This is how first round matchups between a 2-seed and a 15-seed are supposed to go. The 11 upsets before were abberations.

The Cyclones are the 4th-ranked team in college basketball. In their last game before this one, they defeated the No. 1 team in the nation by 28 points in the Big 12 championship.

The Jackrabbits were a 15-seed that lost 12 games during the regular season and whose most notable win outside of the Summit League was over Montana State, a 16-seed in this tournament.

Yes, the Jackrabbits came in on an 8-game winning streak.

Yes, a 15-seed has reached the Sweet 16 in each of the last three tournaments.

And yes, the connection to Otzelberger was a fun storyline that made it easier, or at least more fun, to envision the Jacks as bracket-busters.

But then the game started, and it became apparent in minutes just how good Otzelberger's new team is — really, really good.

The Cyclones scored the first seven points, and after a Matt Mims 3-pointer they scored 10 more.

That made it 17-3, and the Jacks were in early trouble. Much has been made of the Cyclones outstanding defense, but the statistics were one thing. Seeing it in person was quite another. The Cyclones pressured and punished, they chased and they pestered, and the Jacks admitted it was hard to handle, no matter their preparation.

"You can't simulate something like that," said guard Zeke Mayo. "They fly to the ball like something we haven't seen all season."

"They made everything really hard on all of us," added forward Luke Appel.

It wasn't just the defense. The Cyclones (28-7) shot 58 percent from the floor, including 63 percent in the first half. Freshman Milan Momcilovic had 19 points and looked flashy doing it. Keshon Gilbert (15 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals) and Tamin Lipsey (17 points, seven assists) are a caliber of player SDSU does not see in the Summit League.

Still, while the Jackrabbits (22-13) remain winless in the NCAA tournament, we're still talking about a program that has become one of the most consistent and proud at the mid-major level. While the blue-clad fans who made the drive to the CHI Health Center probably feared the worst when Iowa State roared out to that huge early lead, an embarrassing blowout was not in the cards.

Iowa State was too good for the Jacks to beat them. South Dakota State was too good to go away without a fight.

A 10-0 run cut it to 22-17, and while ISU briefly reasserted control Mayo scored the last five points of the half to make it 40-33 at the break.

"Hats off to the Jackrabbits," said Otzelberger, who went 70-33 in three seasons as the SDSU coach. "They have a tremendous program. They did some really great things from a scheme standpoint to spread us out. Just can't say enough about the great job that they did, how well prepared they were."

The second half began with a Mims 3-pointer (the 165th and final of his career) and the lead was down to four at 40-36.

Here they come, right? Nope. Not on this night. Not against this team. Not against Otzelberger. Not in an environment that was decidely a home-court advantage for the Cyclones.

ISU answered immediately, using a 12-0 run to push the lead to 16, and though there were still 16 minutes left, that was pretty much that. Mayo, who had 19 points in a defiantly strong performance, hit a 3 to end the 12-0 run and then ISU scored another five straight. That's how it went.

William Kyle stood tall, contributing 14 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Charlie Easley had 11 points in his final career game and Luke Appel had nine points and seven rebounds while trying to fight through big bodies all night.

It just wasn't enough.

"We pressured the ball — we did that to start the game and we did that in the second half," Otzelberger said. "That's who we are, and that's who we'll continue to be. When we do that, we play at a really high level."

Really high level. A level that could take them a long way in this tournament. Otzelberger took the Cyclones to the Sweet 16 in his first year as their coach, in 2022, but last year they were thumped by Pitt in the first round. This team has designs on big things.

Otzelberger admitted after the game something he did not say before it: That he didn't like the matchup with his old team.

"I didn't want to play against those guys," he said.

That's because Otzelberger is and always will be part of the Jackrabbit family. Couple that with the fact that Iowa State is clearly capable of winning this tournament, and Otzelberger's friend and former assistant, Jacks coach Eric Henderson, seemed intent on his team holding its collective head high.

"We played really, really hard tonight," he said. "We competed our tails off. I said before the tournament started I hope T.J. wins a national championship, and then I saw the pairings and I was hoping he would lose in the first round. Now I hope he wins a national championship again."

If the Cyclones keep playing like this, he just might.