WILLIAMS: Matt Thomas’ work ethic won this year’s Cy-Hawk game

AMES — Consider this: Over the last two seasons, Matt Thomas was arguably the worst defender on Iowa State’s roster. Now let this current version of Matt Thomas be a lesson for everybody with whatever you do in life.

Attack your weaknesses. Dominate them. 

That is what Thomas, who buried six 3-pointers and scored 19 points (both career-highs) in Iowa State’s thrilling 83-82 comeback win over Iowa on Thursday night, did this offseason.

This year’s Cy-Hawk story went like this…

Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff quite possibly played the best 20 minutes of basketball that I have ever seen inside of Hilton Coliseum. At the break, this silky Hawkeye senior was 11-for-13 (5-for-6 from 3-point range) with 30 points (his career-high) and had six rebounds too. He hit threes, fadeaways and threw down one dunk that would make Dominique Wilkins blush.

Down 14 at halftime, Steve Prohm assigned the undersized Thomas of all people to shadow the guy who was very realistically chasing Lafester’s legendary 54.

That same Matt Thomas? That’s who you want to guard Uthoff? Really?

That’s right.  

“In a couple of years here, I feel like I was a liability and it kept me out of games at times,” Thomas said after the game. “I worked on my feet. I worked a lot this summer.”

A timid Uthoff went 1-for-7 in the second period and ended the game with 32.

“For whatever reason, he wasn’t as aggressive,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey said. “Maybe he sensed that they were up in his face a little more. He didn’t have as much opportunity to shoot the ball. He just didn’t feel comfortable.”

Matt Thomas had a heck of a lot to do with it.

This performance made me think of Thomas’ first media day at Iowa State a little over two years ago. Fred Hoiberg actually warned me that Thomas, a sharp-shooting freshman out of Onalaska, Wis., would be a work in progress because he had never played man-to-man defense before.

Look at him now.

Oh, and raise your hand if you saw Thomas averaging 5.1 rebounds per game (through eight games) before the season. 

“I want to bring that toughness role in every time I step on the court and I want to rebound,” Thomas said.

The thing about Thomas’ career in Ames is that even when he has struggled in games, the background noise has always been consistent.

“We see it every day. Just wait and you will too," they’d say. 

A lot of stuff like that.

Georges Niang ended the game with 16 points, six rebounds and five assists, and echoed that sentiment once again except this time, now we’ve seen it. 

“He’s just shown that to us all the time and now he’s showing it to you guys,” Niang said. “That kid can really flat-out hoop and he has the ultimate confidence in himself and I’m happy for him that he got the opportunity to makes things happen because he played unbelievable tonight. If we didn’t have him, it would be an ugly game.” 

Georges is right.

Thomas (4-of-5 from 3-point range during the first 20) was the only Cyclone who did much of anything in the first half. In fact, he is the only Cyclone who I can honestly say played well in the first half. Thomas is the reason why Iowa State was only down 14!

“We just went small in the second half and that forced me to go on a bigger guy (Uthoff),” Thomas said. “He was great tonight. I wasn’t helping. I was just face-guarding him and not allowing easy touches.”

Monte Morris was spectacular in the second half, scored 20 points and dished out nine dimes (including a game-winner). Jameel McKay recorded his fourth double-double (20 and 12) of the season. 

The Cy-Hawk game is weird. Unexpected heroes tend to make strong impacts. Remember John Neal? Abdel Nader was that guy last year. Anthony Clemons did it for Iowa during his freshman season. 

Matt Thomas, welcome to the club. Except based off of what we have seen so far this season, the word “unexpected” doesn’t really describe you anymore. 

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