AMES — Magic was in the air at Hilton Coliseum on Monday night.
Not because the Iowa State women’s basketball team needed it to overcome the last-place Kansas Jayhawks in a 69-49 season finale, though.
It was there because the Cyclones and their fans celebrated the career of one of the best players in school history, and also two others playing their final regular season games in the historic building.
Whether it was the Urbandale native that played for four years, the charismatic transfer, or the All-American that could set the school’s scoring record in a few weeks, there were big cheers for everyone.
“When you think about a kid from Canada, a kid from down the street, and a one-year transfer from Tennessee that somehow found a way to connect with each other… that’s what college sports are supposed to be about,” Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said.
Iowa State honored Bridget Carleton, Alexa Middleton, and Meredith Burkhall during the Senior Night celebration on Monday.
Carleton will finish things off as one of the best players in Iowa State history. The Chatham, Ontario, Canada native will finish in the top five in school history in scoring, blocked shots, steals, free throw percentage, field goals made, and career scoring average.
“It was just a really cool moment,” Carleton said. “Hilton’s meant the world to me. This school has meant the world to me. Playing our last regular season game here was really fun. Getting that ovation [from the] crowd was really really special.”
The seniors exited the court one-by-one, each getting their own big ovation from the Iowa State crowd.
When Carleton came off the floor, she and Fennelly talked for a few extra seconds.
“All I said to her was, ‘Thank you for coming to Iowa State. You’re one of the best players I’ve ever coached,'” Fennelly said. “I guess that’s the best way to put it with her. She’s truly special.”
Fennelly had similar things to say about the rest of the senior class, including the accreditation to the trio as the reason he is still coaching today.
“The three seniors on this team have saved this program, and probably saved my coaching career,” Fennelly said. “My wife has told me, ‘If you don’t like it and you’re not having fun, it’s time to quit.’ Honestly I was getting close.”
Fennelly said that what saved it was this team’s and this class’s ability to ‘Wear it right,’ – one of Fennelly’s favorite mantras. The phrase references the team representing Iowa State off the court better than they do on it. That’s tough to do in a 23-win season.
“It’s an honor to say they were on our team, and it’s an honor to say I’m one of their coaches,” Fennelly said.
Ines Nezerwa, who is technically a senior now, chose not to celebrate the occasion because she and the school are waiting to hear back from the NCAA on if she will get the extra year she applied for.
“That’s just the type of kid she is,” Fennelly said. “We thought we’d know by now. We’d certainly love to have her back.”
With the win, Iowa State finished its regular season with a 23-7 overall record going 13-5 in Big 12 play. That locks up a second-place finish in the Big 12 for the Cyclones, the first time they’ve achieved that since the 2012-13 season.
“We’re wanting to come back here and play two more games in the NCAA Tournament,” Middleton said. “We’re looking forward to that.”
During the game, the NCAA Women’s Basketball selection committee released its second reveal of the season. The reason that’s significant is because teams in that top 16 grouping get to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in their home arena.
Iowa State was announced as No. 14 overall and were slated in the Chicago region – not too far of a trip for a passionate Cyclone fan base.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Fennelly said. “My sons, Billy and Steven, and I were crunching the numbers and trying to guess.”
Reaching the Sweet 16 would be a favorable result for the Cyclones, who are 16-2 on their home court this season.
“If you’re 14, you’re close to 17, but if you’re 14, you’re close to 11,” Fennelly said. “The teams that are right outside of it are looking at it one way, while we have to look at it different way. If we win the next three games, we’re probably still in there.”
Iowa State will return to the court in the Big 12 conference tournament on Friday at 6:00 p.m. to take on either Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, or Kansas.
The game will be played as part of the league quarterfinals and will the see the No. 2 Cyclones battle either the No. 7 seed (OSU or OU) or No. 10 seed (Kansas). The game will be televised by FSN.
“It’s an interesting position to be in, but it’s also a fun one. If we don’t stay in there it will be our fault.”