Jan 18, 2017; Waco, TX, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Bridget Carleton (21) is guarded by Baylor Bears guard Alexis Prince (12) during the second half at Ferrell Center. Baylor won 68-42. Mandatory Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — There is something different about this Iowa State women’s basketball team.
I spent three seasons on this beat and have kept a close eye on the program since leaving it two years ago. It took one quarter to know this is my favorite Iowa State women’s basketball team to watch since I’ve been going to games.
They are unselfish. They move the ball around the perimeter at a breakneck speed. They push the pace every opportunity they get. They are fun to watch, and they feed off their best player – Bridget Carleton.
“She’s gone from scorer to being a great basketball player and impacting the game,” Iowa State head coach Bill Fennelly said following the Cyclones’ 95-35 season-opening win over Niagara, a game in which Carleton shot just 3-of-10 from the floor, but finished with 14 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. “She defends. She defended big guys. She defends guards. She rebounds. She had seven assists. She does whatever. For us to be the kind of team that we want to be, obviously, she’s the focus of our team. She’s the best player on our team. When she can facilitate others and do the things that she does besides score, that says a lot. There’s a lot of kids on our team that are good at something. Right now, Bridget is good at everything and hopefully, the others can feed off that.”
There is no doubt that Carleton is one of the most complete basketball players Iowa State has ever had. The numbers she’s acquired speak for themselves. One night, she can be a high-level scorer who puts up 30 points. Another, she can lead the team in assists while using the attention defenses give her to create opportunities for her teammates.
The latter of those was what we saw out of the senior from Canada on Friday, especially during the team’s dominant first quarter that ended with the Cyclones lead 27-4. Carleton took just three shots during the opening period but dished out four assists, several of them setting up stud freshman Ashley Joens, who closed her Iowa State debut with a team-high 16 points, for wide open 3-pointers.
“I think different teams are going to have scouting reports of last year and what I did, but we have so many new players that they don’t necessarily know what they can do,” Carleton said. “If Ashley’s wide open for a three, I’m going to get it to her because I know she’s going to knock it down. If I have an open shot, I’m going to take it, but I’m also looking to dish if I need to.”
The other driving force behind this year’s Iowa State team becoming so fun is the addition of Tennessee transfer point guard Alexa Middleton. Middleton, who finished with seven points and three assists, has high-level court vision, especially when passing ahead on the fastbreak.
She is the kind of player Iowa State sorely missed the past couple of years when pieces for success were there, but the leadership of a floor general point guard was lacking. Carleton and Middleton are two of the biggest reasons Iowa State’s offense has gotten away from the standing around watching each other try to win isolation battles and become much more about working the ball around the perimeter, keeping the defense off balance and sharing the basketball.
“Our ball movement is 100 percent better. Last year, it was throw it to Bridget and everyone stood there and watched her,” Fennelly said. “Now, we can move the ball a little bit. We don’t have a ton of people that are great, great off the bounce, but we can move the ball. I think when you can space the floor with people who can score, that helps. The other thing is I think Alexa Middleton has really done a good job of facilitating our offense.”
I do not know what this Iowa State team’s ceiling is when it comes time to compete with the buzzsaw that is the Big 12 Conference in women’s basketball. There will always be teams more talented than Iowa State as long as Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma are in the league.
But I am certain this team is set up much better to compete in the league than they have been the past few years. Fennelly has a fun team on his hands and they are going to be worth a trip to Hilton Coliseum even for the casual fan.
“We’re a lot better. Obviously, we haven’t had to prove it against a great team yet,” Fennelly said. “We’ll learn a lot more on Sunday (against Northern Illinois) probably than what you’ve seen in the first three games, but you’ve got to get started somewhere.”