PORTLAND, Ore. — Iowa State head coach TJ Otzelberger was in tears as he sat next to senior Caleb Grill at the post-game press conference.
Grill delivered what Otzelberger called a “surreal” performance against the nation’s No. 1 team, scoring a career-high 31 points and going 7-for-11 from beyond the arc as the Cyclones pushed North Carolina 70-65 in the Phil Knight Invitational semifinals at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland.
It was the program’s first win against a No. 1 team since Jan. 18, 2016, according to an investigation by ESPN Stats & Information. The state of Iowa meets the winner of Friday’s UConn-Alabama matchup.
For Otzelberger, Grill’s night was particularly enjoyable considering the incredible journey the two have shared over the years. According to Grill, Otzelberger was the first person to ever recruit him, and he followed Otzelberger as the coach went through three different programs.
“It’s just amazing when you really think about how long we’ve known each other and how much trust we have in each other,” Otzelberger said before pausing to collect himself. “To be able to do this with people you love, people you know will be on this journey for the rest of your life – man, that’s really special. It would be hard to even put into words how proud I am of Caleb Grill.”
Otzelberger was the head coach of South Dakota State when he met Grill, then a sophomore at Maize High School in Maize, Kansas. Grill committed to SDSU, but when Otzelberger went to UNLV in 2019, Grill chose the state of Iowa. A year later, however, he was back with Otzelberger at UNLV, and then followed him back to Iowa State last season when Otzelberger took over the Cyclones job.
“Just that he’s the first person that really believed 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 for 53 of Iowa State’s 70 points.
At the start of Friday’s game, Grill was 4-24 from the 3-point line this season.
However, with his team seven points behind with 3:57 to go, Grill made one of his seven 3-pointers, setting up Iowa State’s final run to victory over the nation’s No. 1 team.
“He was hot all game,” said Hubert Davis, North Carolina head coach. “He’s someone who, in percentage terms, didn’t shoot well when he came into the game. It really didn’t matter. He felt it today.”
After the Tar Heels struggled to avoid a possible upset against Portland on Thanksgiving Day, Davis said he was concerned his players did things in that game that “we don’t practice.” Davis also said the Tar Heels had their first “lob” after last year’s run to the national title game as the nation’s top team.
Prior to last year’s run, Leaky Black was the only player on the roster to win an NCAA tournament game.
But Davis said Friday he’s not worried his team could lose its first spot because watching a program in March beats all rankings in November.
“I remember the national champions,” he said.
For Otzelberger another step forward in the program. Two years ago, Iowa State fired Steve Prohm after 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 through a No. 1 program in six years. And he did it with the help of a player he always trusted.
However, Grill didn’t embrace the postgame hype. He said he only benefited from the opportunities his teammates gave him.
“I was just following the game,” Grill said. “Thank you to my teammates for finding me with those candid looks.”