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MILWAUKEE — Naz Mitrou-Long wasn’t surprised with what he saw, but it did add some fuel to his already raging fire.
Iowa State’s senior guard looked through online brackets, stumbling upon NCAA tournament brackets filled out by well-known figures.
Turner Sports’ Clark Kellogg and Charles Barkley had picked No. 5 seed Iowa State to beat No. 12 seed Nevada in the first round. Former president Barack Obama and two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry didn’t.
The respect is nice, but the doubt from outsiders is what fuels the Cyclones’ well-oiled machine.
“We see all those things,” Mitrou-Long said. “We see all that and it keeps us humbled. We didn’t come here to just win one game in the dance. We want to come in here and keep knocking down walls and barriers and get to the Final Four. That’s what we came here to do.”
Whether some barriers are created within, the result was a favorable one. Iowa State beat Nevada 84-73 in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday night, and has now won at least one tournament game in five of the last six years.
These ISU seniors have won 100 games in their careers, point guard Monte Morris became the all-time wins leader and they just won their third Big 12 tournament championship last week. Still, the underdog mentality remains.
“It felt really good to win, especially because they were counting us out,” said forward Deonte Burton, who had 14 points and 8 rebounds. “They were saying it was going to be an upset. Nevada was supposed to make it to the Sweet 16. So it felt really good to prove people wrong.”
Seniors have dictated the success Iowa State (24-10) has enjoyed the latter half of the season — the Cyclones have won 11 of their last 13 games — and did so again against the Wolf Pack (28-7). Morris had 19 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 rare turnovers while Burton, Mitrou-Long (13) and guard Matt Thomas (13) finished in double figures.
Iowa State led Nevada by as many as 15 in the first half, and held the normally potent Wolf Pack to just 30 percent shooting. The Cyclones took a 13-point lead into halftime after grabbing 17 defensive rebounds on 30 Nevada misses.
“That probably won us the game,” said Iowa State coach Steve Prohm. “Not to let them get loose in the second half. And we did at times, partly because of them and partly because of our offense. It’s a great win.”
Morris went to the bench with three fouls midway through the second half and Nevada cut its deficit to 55-51. Iowa State used a 7-0 run in 80 seconds, capped by a Donovan Jackson jumper, to go up 11 with 8:08 left.
As big as the four core seniors are, the Cyclones’ bench has been just as crucial to this late-season push. Jackson had 12 points and was perfect from the field (4-of-4) while senior Darrell Bowie had eight points and five rebounds in 14 minutes.
“I thought two guys in particular were phenomenal and we kind of knew that,” said Nevada coach Eric Musselman. “We talked about Jackson really being a starter and Bowie started for them earlier in the year until they moved (Solomon) Young in there. They’re experienced and, you know, I thought that the difference was their experience.”
A matchup with No. 4 seed Purdue awaits on Saturday (8:40 on TBS), with a second-straight trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.
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