Iowa State finally paid the price for not playing the full 40 minutes, and doing so in its next game would likely result in the same outcome.
The Cyclones' challenge to bounce back from their first loss will certainly be a tough one Tuesday night at Cincinnati, where the No. 22 Bearcats are seeking a marquee nonconference victory.
For the second time in three games, 11th-ranked Iowa State (9-1) struggled at the start and found itself facing a double-digit deficit. Unlike their 83-82 win over Iowa on Dec. 10 in which the Cyclones rallied from 20 down, they were unable to finish off a comeback Saturday against Northern Iowa, losing 81-79 after Georges Niang committed a turnover with a chance to score a go-ahead basket and Monte Morris missed a potential game-tying floater.
"We just weren't good enough, especially on the defensive end in the first half," coach Steve Prohm said Monday at practice. "We didn't defend well enough, we weren't good enough."
Niang finished with 30 points and has averaged 21.0 on 56.1 percent shooting his last six games. The senior forward leads the team with 18.7 points per game, though the Cyclones are still trying to find their rhythm since losing Naz Mitrou-Long for the season.
"You're not replacing guard, a combo guard, with a guard, you're replacing him with a perimeter forward, Deonte plays some 3, plays a 4," Prohm explained. "Working in how you're going to rotate, how you're going to sub. We miss Naz from a defensive standpoint, his ability to make shots, his leadership, but we've got a really good group built to win and we'll do that.
"We know what we need to get better at and I need to do a better job demanding it."
The Cyclones are allowing a Big 12-worst 69.3 points per game and their last three opponents have shot a combined 50.0 percent after Northern Iowa torched them at a 58.0 percent clip.
By comparison, Cincinnati (10-2) has allowed an opponent to shoot better than 40 percent just three times, and lost two of them. One was a 65-55 setback Dec. 12 to unbeaten and current No. 6 Xavier, which shot 48.2 percent, and another was a 78-76 home defeat Dec. 2 to now-ninth-ranked Butler (42.2 percent).
The Bearcats have won back-to-back games since losing to the crosstown rival Musketeers, including a 69-63 victory Saturday at VCU in which they held the Rams to 33.9 percent.
While coach Mick Cronin has plenty of respect for Niang and Morris (14.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg), he's also wary of center Jameel McKay. The 6-foot-9 senior is averaging 15.3 points on 64.2 percent shooting and 10.6 rebounds, and Cronin feels McKay "might be the highest draft pick of the three," according to the team's official website.
Cincinnati also won Saturday by getting to the foul line, sinking 30 of 35, and another such effort could help the Bearcats slow down a Cyclones offense averaging 84.8 points on 51.2 percent shooting.
"If we can give Iowa State two fast-break points like we did to VCU, I like our chances," Cronin said. "They try to get 10 to 20 points a game where they're attacking your defense before your defense is set. If they get 'em, they're going to score 75 or higher.
"If they don't get 'em, they struggle to get those numbers."