Going into their first game of the season on Thursday, the Iowa State women’s basketball team had yet to practice with every one of its players available.
That makes it a better harder to create cohesiveness between players and have a solid rotation down.
Usually, this early in the season, that wouldn’t be much of a problem. This year, however, the Cyclones are tasked with a major test in just their second official game of the campaign.
“This is going to be a defensive game for us,” point guard Rae Johnson said. “They move the ball really well. They shoot really well. So, we’ll have to guard the ball and obviously help off-the-ball defense because they cut [a lot].”
Johnson will be the starting point guard when the Cyclones take on in-state rival Drake on Sunday at the Knapp Center (2:00 p.m. on MC22).
Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly knows that winning will be a tough task
“I don’t know if I’m confident at all,” Fennelly said. “Drake is really good. We’ll be exposed in a lot of ways on Sunday. We’ll see how we handle it.”
The Bulldogs have won three-straight Missouri Valley Conference championships and have been to three-straight NCAA Tournaments as well under coach Jennie Baranczyk.
Fennelly said on top of ‘defending like crazy’ Sunday, the Cyclones are going to need to fix their shooting woes.
“We’ve got to shoot the ball better,” Fennelly said. “That has been a problem for us in practice. 6-22 (what Iowa State shot in the first half on Thursday) isn’t going to cut it. 69 points is really on the edge of being enough in most games, but it won’t be enough on Sunday.”
Fennelly went as far to say that he slated them in the Top 20 in his weekly coaches poll coming into the season.
It’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs return both Sara Rhine and Becca Hittner, who each averaged over 18 points per game last season.
“Hittner and Rhine are really good players,” Fennelly said. “The pace they play with is hard to duplicate, especially with a short turnaround.”
Another twist to this game is that it may be the biggest game on Drake’s schedule all season. For a team that routinely glides through conference play, the home game with the respected in-state rival will get some more fans in the Knapp Center.
Iowa State will get Drake’s best shot.
Last season, the Cyclones edged Drake at Hilton, winning 86-81. Like the previous three games before that, it was separated by single digits. The pair of teams play each other close.
Throw in that Iowa State hasn’t won in the Knapp Center since 2013, and Sunday’s game becomes even more daunting.
“We had a great game with them last year,” Fennelly said. “The way they defend, they play a multiple-matchup zone kind of thing that is really hard to simulate.”
One thing Fennelly felt good about following Thursday night’s opener was that he didn’t have any of his players on the court for extended minutes.
They all had relatively low counts in the minutes-played category, and that will help a team that’s struggled with nagging injuries early on be a little more prepared.
Luckily, the Cyclones saw the return of Kristin Scott to the floor against Southern. In 15 minutes, the Minnesota native and leading returning scorer recorded eight points, six rebounds, and four blocks. Those aren’t bad at all for someone who has been sidelined as of late.
“We’re not going to be able to run her out there for 30 minutes,” Fennelly said. “But, if we get 15 minutes of her, it helps us in a lot of ways. It helps our rotation, gives us [more] options, scoring, some length… it gives us a lot of things that we don’t have in other spots.”
While Scott’s play could provide a twist to Sunday’s game, there’s still a lot going against the Cyclones.
Fennelly knows what his team will have to do to come back to Ames with a win, but the question remains as if they can do it.
“We’re going to have to play maybe better than we’re capable of [to beat them],” Fennelly said.
The two teams will face off on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. in the Knapp Center, and fans can tune in on Mediacom Channel 22 as well as ESPN+ to see it.