Mar 20, 2022; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Gabe Kalscheur (22) shoots the ball during the second half against the Wisconsin Badgers in the second round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
MILWAUKEE— Wisconsin held a three-point lead over Iowa State on Sunday at the Fiserv Forum in the second round of the NCAA Tournament when Gabe Kalscher drove to his left with 3:14 left in the first half.
Iowa State’s offense had struggled the entire night, but Kalscheur looked destined to score at the rim on this possession. That is until the Badgers’ national player of the year candidate forward Johnny Davis elevated to block the shot off the glass.
As the two ran towards the other end, Davis had one word for Kalscheur.
The Badgers looked Davis’ way on the following possession, just as they had numerous times already throughout the first half, but Kalscheur was able to slide around Davis’ post seal and secured a steal.
Kalscheur drove to his left again, straight towards Davis, pushing his momentum into the All-American consensus to create space for a layup that cut the Badgers lead to one.
More than one word was exchanged this time.
Brad Davison followed the Kalscheur layup with a misfired 3-pointer then Izaiah Brockington attacked the rack for an easy layup over the Badgers’ longtime star.
Iowa State had the lead and had quieted the decidedly pro-Wisconsin crowd. Kalscheur would make that a habit during the second half as he scored a game-high 22 points.
The Cyclones would surrender that lead only twice more, holding the advantage for more than 22 minutes, on their way to a 54-49 win in order to punch their ticket to the program’s first Sweet 16 since 2016.
“I was just locked in,” Kalscheur said. “I mean, got to play someone that I know, Brad Davison, we’ve had history back and forth. I never liked Wisconsin, to be honest. I have family from there, but I’m Minnesota-raised, man, so I mean, it gives me a little more edge to play, exactly, you said Big Ten team, but also Wisconsin. It fueled my fire, for sure.”
This story unlikely of Iowa State men’s basketball in 2021-22 only gets more and more far-fetched. Not even Disney would greenlight the screenplay that features a team going from two wins in an entire season to the Sweet 16.
“It’s too unrealistic,” I imagine that movie studio executive who has made his life’s fortune off peddling fiction would say.
But, somehow, against all odds, it is real—and the Cyclones required perhaps one of the most unlikely heroes in order to do it.
Kalscheur did not play well in Iowa State’s first-round win over LSU on Friday. He did not play well at all while tallying four points on 1-of-7 shooting and 1-of-6 from deep.
I would have called someone a lunatic if they’d predicted Kalscheur to carry the load on this night in Milwaukee. But, he did, connecting on 10-of-19 shots, including one absolute dagger of a pull-up 3-pointer during the second half as Wisconsin tried to rally its way back to within one possession.
Immediately after the horn sounded, I found a new text from my good friend Austin Hurst referencing a conversation we had after Kalscheur’s 22-point outburst in the home win over Texas back in January.
It said, “You texted me during the Texas game in Ames saying that Gabe Kalscheur we got that day could make Iowa State a second-weekend team. You nailed it. He delivered.”
He did deliver — the exact same number of points that he scored on that afternoon at Hilton Coliseum. I suppose, remembering that now, it doesn’t seem quite as crazy that Kalscheur did what he did on this night.
Disney is really missing out by not choosing this story.
“I never been in this situation before, it’s crazy,” Kalscheur said. “I’m super excited not just for myself and not just for my teammates, but for the whole city of Ames.”
Kalscheur’s offensive performance—understood primarily of hitting tough jumper after tough jumper—was made even better by his tough-as-nails work on the defensive end.
He shared — with Izaiah Brockington — a significant portion of the load guarding Davis. When one didn’t get Davis, they were forced to guard Davison, who is ridiculously hard to guard due to being one of the… we’ll say smartest players in college hoops.
The duo held Davis to 4-of-16 shooting from the field. The Big Ten Player of the Year scored 17 points because he shot 9-of-11 from the free-throw line, but he was visibly frustrated for the majority of the game.
If you’re thinking that 4-of-16 shooting line looks familiar for some reason, it might be because it almost is. The Cyclones — and this same duo — held Iowa’s Keegan Murray to 4-of-17 shooting during their dominant win over the Hawkeyes back in December.
That’s right, Kalscheur and Brockington held the two best scorers in the Big Ten to a combined 8-of-33 from the field during two games. Iowa State held two of the best scorers in college basketball to 24 percent shooting in two games.
Does someone have Disney on the phone yet?
“They put a really good pressure defense, they did a really good job of taking away passing lanes,” Davis said of the Iowa State defense. “I just think that we just straight up missed shots and didn’t share the ball the way we were supposed to.”
Somehow, this pieced-together team with glaring warts and unbreakable spirit has done something only five other teams in program history have done.
Somehow, this program that bottomed out 12 months ago during an 0-18 run through the Big 12 regular season is only four wins away from the mountaintop.
Will they reach the summit?
Probably not, but this remarkable, tough and gritty team has a way of doing things nobody expects.
“We didn’t set out for a certain win total or to do anything based on what transpired in the past,” head coach TJ Otzelberger said. “What we did set out to do is restore pride to a program that I love so much.”
Mission accomplished, Coach. We’ll see you in Chicago — and I’m sure those movie execs will never believe whatever twist this story takes next.