By Ian Smith, CycloneFanatic.com Contributor
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanWsmith3
CycloneFanatic.com’s coverage of the 2012 Big 12 Women’s Basketball Tournament is proudly brought to you by our good friends at Wilson Toyota of Ames located at 2212 S. Duff Ave. in Ames.
AMES –Bill Fennelly never wavered.
Not when he lost his voice from cancer treatments, not when a starter left Iowa State in December and not when the Cyclones started Big 12 play 0-5.
At Iowa State, Fennelly demands things be done his way.
Once again, it paid off for the Cyclones. After a rough start, Iowa State (18-11, 9-9) went 9-4 down the stretch and finished fourth in the league.
On Thursday, the Cyclones will play Kansas State in the Big 12 Tournament at 11 a.m.
“It’s hard to quantify how proud I am of my staff and my players,” Fennelly said. “To be 0-5 in this league and end up where we are, 9-9, 4-seed, says a lot about the players.”
It wasn’t easy against one of the country’s hardest schedules, but Iowa State never quit.
The Cyclones finished No. 41 in the RPI and No. 29 in the Sagarin rankings despite playing the seventh toughest slate in the nation. Iowa State played 19 games against teams in the top-50 of the Sagarin rankings.
The wins piled up behind two emerging freshmen, a solid frontcourt and a defensive stopper. Oh, and some player named Chelsea Poppens.
Feeding off the tenacious Poppens (14.5 points, 10.9 rebounds per game), Iowa State won seven games in February to all but clinch its sixth-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“It really was a great accomplishment,” Fennelly said during the Big 12 teleconference Monday. “I think something that they gained from it, hopefully was not just, ‘Hey, we can go out and win games.’ But, when it gets a little bit tough, we are not going to quit. We’re not going to run away or blame other people. We are going to finish what we started. The kids did that and I’m very proud of them for it.”
As if playing in the NCAA Tournament wasn’t enough of a reward, the Cyclones already know where they’ll be headed – Hilton Coliseum.
Fennelly cited the fans as one of the big reasons for the turnaround, and is excited to see all the Cardinal and Gold in Kansas City and at the NCAA Tournament in Ames.
“It’s one thing to have a fan base, it’s another thing to have a fan base when you’re 0-5,” Fennelly said. “We are 0-5 and Texas Tech came to town and we had 11,000 people. That’s all you have to say about the fans at Iowa State.”
On it’s home court, Iowa State went 14-2 and a perfect 6-0 in February, pushing the Cyclones to another date in the Big Dance.
It all started with Fennelly’s steady approach at the top.
“There is a certain way we are going to do things here at Iowa State,” Fennelly said.
Scouting the Big 12 Tournament
Taking an honest look at the Big 12 Tournament, the question is, “Who’s playing for second place?”
Baylor is favored to run away with the title. The No. 1 ranked Bears are 31-0 this season and suit up the nation’s best player – Brittney Griner. All Griner did her last time out was score a career-high 41 points in a win over Iowa State.
No one is going to hand Baylor the trophy, but it will be hard to beat the Bears. So how does the rest of the tournament shake out?
Let’s start with the Cyclones matchup against Kansas State (18-12, 9-9) in the No. 4/5 game.
Iowa State beat the Wildcats twice this season, including a 57-33 whipping inside Hilton. That doesn’t mean Thursday’s game will be a cakewalk. Last season, the Cyclones topped Kansas State twice in the regular season, but lost to the Wildcats in the Big 12 Tournament, 56-53.
Fennelly is hoping the same scenario doesn’t play out this year.
“Someone said to me, it’s hard to beat somebody three times,” the 17-year head coach said. “Hell man, it’s hard to beat anybody in this league one time.”
The winner of Thursday’s tilt likely gets Baylor in the second round. The Cyclones proved last Saturday they can play with the Bears for a half, but 40 minutes is a tall task.
Iowa State was tied with Baylor, 32-32, at the break before losing 77-53.
On the other side of the bracket, Oklahoma (19-11, 11-7) and Texas A&M (20-9, 11-7) are the favorites to advance to the title game.
Work left to do
Five Big 12 teams should already be in the NCAA Tournament, but there’s a few squads with work left to do if they want to play past this weekend.
Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma State could all need victories in the Big 12 Tournament to seal their spots. The three squads are neighbors in the latest RPI rankings (Kansas No. 52, Texas No. 53, and Oklahoma State No. 54).
Texas (18-12, 8-10) kicks off the tournament against Texas Tech in the No. 8/9 game on Wednesday. Oklahoma State (16-11, 8-10) gets Missouri following that game.
Kansas (19-11, 8-10) won’t play until Thursday against No. 3 seed Texas A&M.
“When you look at the talent and depth of this league, when we all get to the (NCAA Tournament) we’ll all win games,” Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson said during the teleconference. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Fennelly can’t wait to see it start play out in Kansas City.
“When you look at what our league has done all year long, this is a celebration of the best league in the country,” he said.
By the numbers
Here’s a quick look at some Iowa State stats from this year and the Cyclones’ history at the Big 12 Tournament.
– Iowa State owns the most wins in Big 12 Tournament history with 22. The Cyclones are 22-13 all-time for a .629 winning percentage. That ranks second to Oklahoma’s .656 mark.
– The Cyclones own the record for most 3-pointers made in a Big 12 Tournament game with 14. In fact, ISU owns nine of the top 12 3-point shooting performances.
– Iowa State averaged 10,125 fans per home game this season.
– Chelsea Poppens was the only Big 12 player to average a double double this season. The junior averaged 14.5 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. Poppens also led the league with 4.5 offensive rebounds per game. Poppens was named first-team All-Big 12 on Monday.
– The Cyclones ranked third in the Big 12 in scoring defense. Opponents averaged just 56.4 points against Iowa State.
– Hallie Christofferson was second on the team with 10.2 points per game. Anna Prins emerged during conference play to average 9.7 points against Big 12 teams.
– Nikki Moody set the freshman assist record this season with 127 assists. She also averaged 9.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. Senior Lauren Mansfield wasn’t far behind with 7.6 points per game and 96 total assists.
– Fellow freshman Brynn Williamson attempted just 11 shot from inside the arc this season. Williamson hit 45 treys and scored 6.1 points per game.