The Cyclones found their three-point shooting touch — and just in time.
It took everything Iowa State had to top No. 22 Kansas State, 81-75, which cut into a a double-digit halftime lead and came as close as down three with 49 seconds left.
"We weren't hitting the big red 'Panic' button," sophomore Georges Niang said.
Melvin Ejim reached across the body with his right hand to block a game-tying three-point attempt by Shane Southwell at the top of the key, which Dustin Hogue snared in the air off the deflection. From there, the foul-and-free throw derby was on, the No. 16 Cyclones holding on.
Iowa State entered Saturday's contest against the No. 22 Wildcats with a 28.3 clip from distance in conference play. Against the nation's second-best three-point defending team, Iowa State made 8 of 11 treys in the first half to jump to a 46-34 halftime lead.
Freshman Matt Thomas tied a career-high with four three-pointers made, all coming in the first half. Thomas hadn't lived up to his billing as a top shooter in the 2013 class, weathering a brutal January (4-for-17) that saw him lose his starting job to Naz Long.
Thomas kept the Cyclones afloat in the first half, using three-pointers to take leads of 20-18, 23-18, 28-22 and 44-33.
"It was fun to see him out there, feel so good for the kid because he put so much time and effort into it," ISU coach Fred Hoiberg said. "For him to come out and hit all threes was huge for us, allowed us to spread out the floor.
"Just really really happy for him because I know how much it means to him."
Said Thomas, who joked the pink socks the players wore for the Coaches v. Cancer occasion were a good-luck charm: "It felt good. My teammates and coaches have been behind me the last few games when I haven't played well."
The Cyclones made one three-pointer in the second half as the Wildcats rallied back, using a quick eight-point run off two ISU turnovers to cut the score to 66-63.
From there, Ejim picked it up, scoring 18 of his 20 points in the second half to give him the conference lead in points per game (17.9) over Marcus Smart.
"It was just about timing," Ejim said. "The [shooters] were playing so well in the first half they were in a rhythm … The guys were hitting me (in the second half) with things I could be successful at, quick easy passes. We got back to playing our type of basketball. A bunch of assists, looking inside."
Ejim risked a fifth foul and three charity shots for Southwell on his game-clinching block.
"Looking at film and the scouting report, I knew … he likes to shake into his stuff," Ejim said of Southwell. "I jumped up pretty early and got a block and we were able to get the ball, free throw and ice the game."
The block was the first of three straight misses from distance for the Wildcats, who had chances in the final seconds.
"Obviously when you can shut down the rhythm of another team its a huge thing," Hoiberg said. "To get those stops late is so important. We switched our defense up a bit I thought the guys did a good job."
The win gives Iowa State a burst of momentum heading into Wednesday's game against Kansas at Phog Allen Field House, a rematch of ISU's 77-70 loss Jan. 13.
That loss, at the hands of Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, was the second of three consecutive for ISU, which started the season 14-0 and climbed to No. 8 in the AP poll. After his team was rolled 87-72 by the Cyclones at Hilton Coliseum on Jan. 7, Baylor coach Scott Drew said ISU had a good chance of reaching the Final Four.
From there, ISU lost at Oklahoma, to Kansas and at Texas. Worse, the Cyclones shrugged off their shoulders the chip they brought into the season.
"I think anytime you're undefeated or think you're on high, that plays a part," Ejim said. "Those losses brought us down to earth. Like Scott Drew said, we do have the potential — at times we play really well and are hard to beat. It's all about getting back to there and I think this game took a step in the right direction."