PORTLAND, Ore. — Caleb came up big — but not that Caleb. Iowa State senior Caleb Grill had one of the best games of his life, scoring a career-high 31 points and guiding Iowa State to a second half come-from-behind 70-65 win over No. 1 North Carolina in Friday's Phil Knight Invitational semifinal.
Tar Heels star Caleb Love, meanwhile, had 12 points, but only three in the second half. A UNC team that had been flirting with fire by playing close games against mid-major opponents finally got burned by failing to execute its offense down the stretch against the first power-conference opponent the Tar Heels (5-1) played this season.
Iowa State, which two seasons ago went 2-22, has started a second consecutive season 5-0 under second-year coach T.J. Otzelberger, who is 6-7 against AP Top 25 teams at Iowa State. The 5-0 Cyclones will play No. 20 UConn in Sunday's PKI championship game.
This is a result that will cause significant change atop the next AP Top 25 poll. You know what that means. It's takeaways time. We have to start with the Tar Heels.
UNC losing wasn't surprising whatsoever
When I spoke to UNC senior Leaky Black on Thursday, he warned that he and his teammates could ill afford to continue to come out flat and think they could escape. The good for UNC: Heels didn't come out flat. Led most of the first half, including 30-21 with 5:36 remaining. Yes, ISU needed an outrageous shooting performance by Grill, but it's obvious at this point in the season that the Tar Heels are not playing with the urgency, collective purpose or confidence the way they did to close out the final month of last season.
Love also fueled the fire. He's a willing trash-talker, and on Friday that wound up backfiring. The more he chirped at Grill, the more confident Grill got and the more shots he hit.
"He was 4 for 24 coming into the game from 3, he hit a lot of tough shots," Love told CBS Sports of Grill afterward. "Some crazy shots, deep shots, hand in the face, it didn't matter. Credit to him."
Credit to Love for tipping his cap after trying to toss Grill off his game for 40 minutes and failing.
"We got sped up in a lot of our actions and we didn't handle that well," Love said. "On the defensive end, we weren't guarding. They hit a lot of jump shots, credit to them, but they played the better game."
Maybe taking this kind of loss will serve UNC well. It was getting nipped at in four of its previous five wins. Sometimes a loss like this is a furnace to the face that can nudge a team into better habits.
Otzelberger can't hold back his emotions
The victory is just the third time Iowa State defeated the No. 1 team in the AP rankings in 23 tries. The Cyclones had victories against top-ranked Oklahoma on Jan. 18, 2016, and Kansas, led by Wilt Chamberlain, on Jan. 14, 1957. Otzelberger told CBS Sports this was the first time he ever was a part of a team that beat a No. 1.
Which is how a raucous celebration like this — in one of the smallest locker rooms I've ever seen — materializes.
ISU celebrates 🎉 pic.twitter.com/2oLXROHelG— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) November 26, 2022
We're at the end of November, but thanks to the nature of these multiteam events, upsets are offered up and you get March-like vibes on the weekend of Thanksgiving. It gives a lot to be thankful for, and the Cyclones showed that. After the locker room dousing, a soaked Otzelberger welled up with emotion at his postgame press conference. He spoke of how committed he was to the job, how this wasn't some stepping-stone situation for him.
"This is for life," he said with tears in his eyes.
He's 27-13 through 40 games at Iowa State, and it's safe to say that ISU fans are feeling more optimistic about their program than they have in six or seven years. The Cyclones don't play pretty, don't want to play pretty, but defensively are an insult to every team's sense of security. ISU ranks second in turnover percentage — it flipped possessions 14 times on UNC — and has to be considered a tournament-worthy Big 12 team for the second straight season. Remember, ISU went 7-11 in the Big 12 regular season but got into the NCAAs as a No. 11 seed and pushed through to the Sweet 16.
Can UNC play at a high level without a bench?
No matter what UNC does to correct its mistakes, I'm starting to wonder if there's a ceiling on this team due to its personnel. It's a worrying sign that Hubert Davis might have to go to the "Iron Five" look again this season — playing starters, mostly — because I think that's bound to lead to a few more losses than necessary. Love, Black, Armando Bacot, R.J. Davis and Pete Nance all played more than 31-plus minutes against a physical opponent, doing so 28 hours removed from getting a good run from Portland. Attrition set in a bit. That's a lot to ask. Iowa State looked fresher to close out the game.
Puff Johnson, Seth Trimble, D'Marco Dunn — they're just not ready to be key contributors at this point. Does that change in the next six weeks? It sort of feels like it has to if UNC is going to grow into a Final Four contender.
Davis wasn't fretting afterward. He said that, even though so much of last season's team is back, it's still a new team that needs to learn lessons and find its way. Personalities evolve, guys have gotten better in spots, but as a group this team now is not nearly at the level UNC's team was in March.
"Just because you're experienced doesn't mean you're perfect," Davis said.
UNC is far from perfect, that's obvious. The question is if or when it will find an elite form, because that hasn't been the case in a single game so far.