AMES, Iowa -- Iowa State's run of glorified exhibitions and scattered tests are over.
From here on out, the Cyclones will be challenged night-in and night-out in one of the nation's toughest leagues.They'll have to play much better than they did on Saturday to have a chance in the Big 12.Melvin Ejim scored 15 points and grabbed 15 rebounds and Iowa State closed out nonconference play by beating Mississippi Valley State 67-65.Scott Christopherson added 11 points for the Cyclones (10-3), who've now won five straight heading into Big 12 play.Iowa State shot just 34.4 percent in the second half, allowing the Delta Devils to pull with 62-59 with 1:19 left. But the Cyclones' defense came up with a big stop, and Ejim buried two free throws with 12.1 seconds left.Cor-J Cox's 3 pulled the Delta Devils within two, but it came at the buzzer.Terrence Joyner had 14 points for Mississippi Valley State (1-11), which dropped its seventh straight game.The Delta Devils, like many teams in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, have played an utterly brutal schedule so far. Saturday's matinee in Ames came on the heels of trips to Arkansas, Northwestern, Ole Miss, Florida and Wisconsin.Iowa State star Royce White played just three minutes as he struggled with flu-like symptoms, and the Cyclones struggled without their best player. Without White, Iowa State's leading scorer and rebounder, the Cyclones took longer to put away Mississippi Valley State than previous high-major opponents.The Delta Devils cut Iowa State's lead to 47-37 midway through the second half on a Terrance Joyner 3-pointer, and Kevin Burwell's 3 pulled Mississippi Valley State within 47-42.Mississippi Valley State got as close as 54-49 with 5:38 left, but Ejim answered with a 3 and the Cyclones were able to hold off the Delta Devils -- but just barely -- the rest of the way.The Cyclones went on an 18-2 run late in the first half, fueled by the play of McGee and Ejim off the bench, to go ahead 31-14 late in the first half. Iowa State got 24 points from its reserves in the opening half en route to a 36-23 lead.That should have been enough, but Iowa State scored just 18 points in the first 15 minutes of the second half.The Cyclones, as was expected, suffered through some rough patches in non-league play as they tried to assimilate four transfers into their rotation.Iowa State appears to be closer to competing in the Big 12 than it did six weeks ago -- though it didn't look that way at times on Saturday.The Cyclones shifted Chris Allen to point guard and Christopherson back to shooting guard in early December, and they haven't lost since. Chris Babb has found his niche behind the 3-point line, and White has given Iowa State scoring and rebounding in the paint.Iowa State still isn't all the way there defensively, but their communication and intensity have improved since November. The Cyclones held Mississippi Valley State to just two points in a nine-minute stretch in the first half, building a lead the Delta Devils couldn't overcome despite their best efforts.But there aren't any supposed breathers left like Mississippi Valley State- a fact that will be driven home when Texas visits Wednesday night.