PORTLAND, Oregon — Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger had tears in his eyes as he sat next to senior Caleb Grill at the postgame news conference.
Grill delivered what Otzelberger called a “surreal” performance against the No. 1 team in the nation, scoring a career-high 31 points and going 7-for-11 from beyond the arc as the Hawkeyes stunned North Carolina 70-65 in the Phil Knight Invitational semifinals at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland.
It was the program’s first win over a No. 1 team since Jan. 18, 2016, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Iowa State will face the winner of Friday’s UConn-Alabama matchup.
For Otzelberger, Grill’s night was especially gratifying, considering the incredible journey to two have shared over the years. According to Grill, Otzelberger was the first person who ever recruited him, and he followed Otzelberger as the coach moved across three different programs.
“It’s just amazing when you really think about how long we’ve known each other and the trust we’ve had in each other,” Otzelberger said before he paused to collect himself. “To be able to do this with people that you love, people that you know you’re gonna be on this journey with for the rest of your life — man, that’s really special. It’d be hard to even put into words how proud I am of Caleb Grill.”
Otzelberger was the head coach at South Dakota State when he met Grill, then a sophomore at Maize High School in Maize, Kansas. Grill committed to SDSU, but when Otzelberger left for UNLV in 2019, Grill chose Iowa State. A year later, however, he was back with Otzelberger at UNLV and then he followed him back to Iowa State last season when Otzelberger took the Cyclones job.
“Just having him be the first person that really had belief in me, it’s just really special what he’s done for me and my family and everything we’ve done,” Grill said.
Grill and Jaren Holmes (22 points), a St. Bonaventure transfer, combined to score 53 of Iowa State’s 70 points.
Entering Friday’s game, Grill was 4-for-24 from the 3-point line this season.
With his team down by seven points with 3:57 to go, however, Grill made one of his seven 3-pointers, which kicked off Iowa State’s final run to victory over the No. 1 team in the nation.
“He was hot the entire game,” North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis said. “He’s somebody, percentage-wise, who wasn’t shooting well coming into the game. It really didn’t matter. He was feeling it today.”
After the Tar Heels fought to avoid a potential upset against Portland on Thanksgiving Day, Davis said he was worried that his players had done things in that game that “we don’t practice.” Davis also said the Tar Heels were dealing with “praise” for the first time as the nation’s No. 1 team following last year’s run to the national title game.
Before last year’s run, Leaky Black had been the only player on the roster who’d won an NCAA tournament game.
But Davis said Friday he’s not worried about his team losing its No. 1 spot because a program’s standing in March exceeds any rankings in November.
“I remember the national champions,” he said.
For Otzelberger, it’s another sign of progress for the program. Two years ago, Iowa State fired Steve Prohm following a two-win season. In his first season as head coach, Otzelberger led the Cyclones to the Sweet 16 last year.
On Friday, he helped the team win its first game over a No. 1 program in six years. And he did it with the help of a player he said he’s always trusted.
Grill didn’t embrace the postgame hype, though. He said he just benefited from the opportunities his teammates had given me.
“I was just staying the course of the game,” Grill said. “Credit to my teammates for finding me on those open looks.”
Caleb Grill, Iowa State take down No. 1 North Carolina in upset