BY JOE REEDY
NICEVILLE, Fla. — With Illinois and No. 4 Iowa State trading the lead for most of Saturday’s championship game in the Emerald Coast Classic, Cyclones guard Monte Norris decided with 10:51 remaining to try and deliver a knockout punch.
Iowa State held a 59-58 lead when Norris had the ball at midcourt and saw Abdel Nader had a step on his defender. Norris fired a lob pass and Nader slammed it home. The dunk was part of an 18-4 run in the Cyclones’ 84-73 win.
“We practice a lot of lobs and connect. When I was at halfcourt I saw him point up. I threw it up there and you saw the results,” said Norris, who was voted the tournament MVP after having 20 points and nine rebounds.
Georges Niang, who led the Cyclones (5-0) with 23 points, had six points during the spurt. Norris and Nader (18 points) had four apiece.
“That catapulted the momentum, changed the whole pace and fired us up,” Niang said. “I really think that was instinct from Monte. He knows the time, the score and what it is going to do to change momentum.”
For the first 30 minutes, Illinois (3-4) hung in and was challenging the Cyclones at both ends of the court.
The Illini scored seven of the game’s first nine points and were up 12-6 less than five minutes in. Iowa State started slowly cutting into the lead, as the last 12 minutes of the half saw six ties and seven lead changes.
The opening part of the second half had two more ties and five lead changes before the Cyclones seized control.
“It felt like a heavyweight boxing match and then the last 8-9 minutes they imposed their will and for whatever reason we weren’t able to impose ours. Their ability to work to get the shots was better than us,” Illinois coach John Groce said.
Malcolm Hill led Illinois with 20 points, while Kendrick Nunn added 19 and Mike Thorne Jr. had 10.
In its first five games, Iowa State has wins over teams from the Pac-12 (Colorado), ACC (Virginia Tech) and Big Ten (Illinois).
“It was good to get these tests early. Power five teams have the size we are going to be playing against in the Big 12. It does a lot to prep us for fighting through adversity,” Niang said.
Thorne Jr. left midway through the first half with a left knee injury and did not return. Groce said the extent of the injury to Thorne was unknown and that the training staff was still deciding whether he would undergo an MRI here or when the team returns to campus on Sunday.
Matt Thomas was also in double figures for the Cyclones with 10 points. … After shooting 69 percent from the field in a win over Virginia Tech on Friday night, Iowa State struggled from the field in the first half, going 14 of 31. The Cyclones were 19 of 36 in the second half and shot 49.3 percent for the game. … Norris has 31 assists and only four turnovers in his last four games.
Iowa State: The Cyclones are the only team in The Associated Press Top 25 to have all five starters averaging 13 points or more.
Illinois: The Illini are 8-21 against ranked teams during Groce’s four-year tenure. The last time they defeated a non-conference opponent ranked in the top five was in the 2005 Final Four, when the Illini defeated No. 4 Louisville 72-57 to advance to the championship game.
Iowa State: Hosts North Dakota State on Tuesday.
Illinois: Hosts Notre Dame on Wednesday in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.