Ames, Iowa Iowa State's run of glorified exhibitions and scattered tests are over, as Big 12 play starts next week.
The Cyclones will have to play much better than they did on Saturday to have a chance in one of the nation's toughest leagues.
Melvin Ejim scored 15 points and grabbed 15 rebounds and Iowa State closed out nonconference play by with a thoroughly unimpressive 67-65 win over woeful Mississippi Valley State.
Scott Christopherson added 11 points for the Cyclones (10-3), who've now won five straight heading into Big 12 play. But they let one of the worst Division I teams in the country hang around until the end, a fact that disgusted coach Fred Hoiberg so much that he slammed a table as hard as he could in his postgame press conference.
Iowa State's defensive effort, which appeared to have improved over the past few weeks, had once again flummoxed the often-unflappable Hoiberg.
"Instead of buckling down, hitting the table and getting ready to get stops, we don't do it," said Hoiberg as he banged a table for emphasis. "We stand straight up and down, guys drive right by us. It's as a frustrating a thing as I can tell you guys."
Iowa State shot just 34.4 percent, allowing the Delta Devils to pull with 62-59 with 1:19 left. But the Cyclones' defense finally 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 so bad that Hoiberg said he was vomiting in the hallway outside of Iowa State's locker room, and the Cyclones struggled mightily 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.
"It's a matter of us not getting that killer mentality," Hoiberg said. "You have a chance to bury them, a team that's 1-10 going into this game, and you let them get back into the game."
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.
"You have it or you don't, and right now we don't have it," Hoiberg said. "We're looking for five guys to go out there and which five? Right now, I don't know. We'll throw it up for grabs for playing time."
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 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 though. 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 Iowa State's best efforts to throw it away.
But there aren't any supposed breathers left like Mississippi Valley State— a fact that will be driven home when Texas visits Wednesday night.
"I think we have the whole conference season to prove what type of team we can be," Christopherson said. "I think we have the kind of team that can do really well in this league and compete to play at the highest level of this league. But it doesn't really matter what I think. It matters what actually is."