BERKELEY, Calif. -- No lead is safe against Iowa State. The Cyclones are just too money from 3-point range. Michigan State learned the hard way in a 69-68 loss Saturday in the NCAA tournament regional semifinals.
The Spartans took a seven-point lead -- the biggest margin of the second half -- with 1 minute, 29 seconds left, when the Cyclones went to work, doing two things they never do.
They started to press full-court. And they went to the bank.
That press, practiced only once a week, forced consecutive turnovers. After the first, Heather Ezell banked home a 3-pointer that narrowed the gap to 68-66 with one minute remaining, setting up a thrilling finish.
Her teammates were mum afterward on whether she called "backboard."
Michigan State, which had been poised down the stretch in two previous tournament games, seemed to get rattled. The Iowa State press forced another turnover, and then the Spartans, one of the nation's best rebounding teams, gave up two offensive boards.
Alison Lacey, who scored a game-high 29 points, took advantage and ripped another trey, the Cyclones' 10th of the game, for a 69-68 lead with 23 seconds left.
Michigan State got three chances in the waning moments, but none found the net, and the game ended in a scrum of arms flaying at a loose ball.
Afterward, a disconsolate group of Spartans, just the third No. 9 seed to reach the Sweet 16 and first since 1998, were left to ponder what might have been.
"The game shouldn't just be decided on the last play," center Allyssa DeHaan said. "There were many things we could have done through the whole stretch."
The 6-foot-9 DeHaan scored a season-high 24 points. The Spartans had been 16-1 this season and 52-15 over the junior's career when she reached double figures. She added eight rebounds and five blocks. But she had only three points over the final 5:35, as the Cyclones forced other Spartans to beat them.
The game set up in advance as a battle of strengths. The Cyclones were one of the nation's best 3-point shooting teams, hitting at a 35.1 percent clip and averaging eight per game. The Spartans, meanwhile, ranked eighth in the nation defending the 3 and had held their last 18 opponents to 23.9 percent from behind the arc.
Iowa State won that battle, hitting 10-of-25 (40 percent).
It also beat the Spartans at their own strength: rebounding. The Cyclones outrebounded the Spartans 33-31, including 17-12 on the offensive glass. Michigan State entered the game 10th in the nation in rebounding margin (plus-7.7 per game).
Another statistical curiosity was fouls. With five minutes to go, Michigan State had been called for 17 and Iowa State only six.
The Spartans seemed particularly chaffed they didn't get a call on their final possession.
A question in the postgame news conference about the officiating elicited a pause and a smile from coach Suzy Merchant, but she spit out the bait.
"Obviously, [the fouls] were a big difference in the game," she said.
The biggest lead of the game was nine points, and that came during early action, when sharp-shooting Iowa State was anything but, hitting just one of its first 10 shots and falling behind 7-0 and 13-4. It was clear the Spartans' length -- see four early blocks -- was giving the Cyclones trouble. But then the Cyclones, led by a pair of 3-pointers from Ezell, started to find their range. After six lead changes, they took a 38-26 advantage into the locker room.
The lead would change hands five more times before the clock struck zero, none more unlikely than the final switcheroo.
Afterward, gracious Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly called it "one of the best games I've ever been a part of." His Cyclones now advance to their first Elite Eight in a decade in large part because a full-court press they never use worked like a charm.
"Certainly, that is not a normal way for Iowa State to win a game," he said.
Ted Miller covers college sports for ESPN.com. Check out his coverage of Pac-10 football.