The Iowa State – Iowa women’s basketball game was already going to be big.
It’s the most anticipated game of the season in the state of Iowa and the first event of the 2020-2021 Iowa Corn Cy-Hawk series.
This season, two players that both hail from Iowa and average more than 25 points per game for their respective teams, will go head-to-head in Iowa City (Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. CT on BTN+).
“I think it’s a great thing,” Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said. “I think they’re two great players and I think it’s great they come from our state. I think they bring a lot of attention (both) to themselves, the programs, to the sport, and they’re continuing to do it on a national level.”
Ashley Joens started off her season with a 25-point performance against Omaha in Iowa State’s first game of the season. Since then, she hasn’t failed to reach the 30-point mark in each of her last three games.
Caitlin Clark debuted with the Hawkeyes in a 27-point, 8-rebound showcase against in-state rival UNI.
Each of them is considered the lone stars of their respective teams thus far this year.
“I think they both are playing at a high level,” Fennelly said. “I know it’s early in the season, but I don’t think you can say that, ‘just because it’s early, they aren’t that good of players or whatever.’ I don’t think it’s surprising anyone that they’re both playing (so well) and I think it won’t surprise anyone to see them continue playing well throughout their careers.”
However, as was the case two seasons ago when eventual WNBA players Bridget Carleton and Megan Gustafson squared off, the supporting casts might be an even bigger focus.
That was the case the last time these two squads played at Carver-Hawkeye Arena with Tania Davis hitting the go-ahead shot for the Hawkeyes to take the lead with just seconds left on the clock.
Ashley Joens – who was then a freshman – promptly had a chance to take the lead back at the buzzer, but the shot failed to connect.
“I think a lot of times when you play these games, there are certain players that get the bulk of the attention – and that’s well deserved – but usually there is someone who has to do something unique,” Fennelly said.
He’s looking for an x-factor.
Someone unexpected that can step up on Wednesday and score could break the game wide open and give their team the upper hand.
“Obviously, for us, the uniqueness is four of our top six minutes played are freshmen,” Fennelly said. “This is their first in-state game, it’s on the road, and you don’t know how they are going to react. So, you always default probably to your seniors because they’ve been in this game before.”
Those seniors in Kristin Scott, Rae Johnson and Madison Wise are 0-3 in their careers against the Hawkeyes.
In four games this season, they’ve combined to average just 17.6 points per game for the team.
It hasn’t been ideal, but if one of the experienced players can step up to lead the Cyclones, it will be a much-welcomed sight.
“It’s a huge one,” Wise said. “Any time the Cy-Hawk game is played, it’s really big. We were all talking about that in the locker room – how we haven’t gotten one. This would be huge for us.”
The group utilizes its record against Iowa.
It’s been a talking point amongst them this week.
“It just motivates us,” Wise said. “We haven’t won a game (since I got here). We need to play strong, come out and ultimately, communicate and play team basketball.”
It may motivate no one more than the junior in Joens, though, who missed the potential game-winner in that last contest in Iowa City.
Joens shot 1-10 from the field and missed both of the free throws that she attempted. It’s the biggest statistical outlier of the now star player’s career.
“I use it as motivation, for sure,” Joens said. “I’m really excited to get back to Iowa City and to be able to play such a big game like this. There’s a lot of hype around it, but you just have to go out there and play it like every other game.”
None of this is to say that the game won’t come down to each team’s star. It very well could.
And, if that happens, the Cyclones need to be prepared to defend Clark.
“She’s a scorer,” Joens said. “She’s going to look to score on all levels. She’s going to be aggressive and shoot the ball. You just have to guard her up close and be able to contain her.”
That will help, regardless of what Iowa State does on the offensive end, but overall, a lot of the team’s issues or miscues can be fixed rather simply.
The Cyclones need to make shots. It might be one of the easiest observations that one could make about a basketball team, but Fennelly knows where it lies.
“It wasn’t just South Carolina,” Fennelly said. “We’ve struggled to shoot the ball, which is kind of an odd thing for us, because I think it’s something we will do (well) eventually, but we haven’t proven it. We’ll see a lot of zone defenses until we prove it. We have a lot of kids that can shoot it, we need them to make it now.”
If the Cyclones can do that, there’s no reason to think that they can’t win this game.
It will just depend on who is shooting the ball and who is making it.