Iowa State head women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly advises his players between quarters in a non-conference basketball game against Drake University on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa. © Bryon Houlgrave/The Register via Imagn Content Services, LLC
No easy nights on the road to 700 wins. Just white knuckle rides — early, often, each season, each game.
The Iowa State women navigated through another nerve-wracking Big 12 matchup Thursday night, making clutch plays in the closing seconds to stave off Kansas State’s upset bid, 62-60, in Manhattan.
Cyclone coach Bill Fennelly notched his 700th career triumph, but it was the last thing — literally — he talked much about. These current Big 12 wins are just too precious. Nostalgia can and must wait.
“We didn’t turn the ball over a lot, we guarded really hard and found a way to survive, I guess,” Fennelly said.
Oh, about those 700 wins …
Fennelly began his postgame remarks by expressing hope that questioners would downplay the achievement, at least initially. His team deserved the spotlight, not him.
“Some of the questions will be about 700 wins and I appreciate that, but I would hope (that) we can start by celebrating 11 wins for this team and seven conference wins for this team — five road wins for this team,” Fennelly said. “Those are the numbers that are more important today and certainly most important to this group of kids.”
And about those clutch plays down the stretch …
ISU star Ashley Joens scored off an Emily Ryan assist with 34 seconds left, the Cyclones forced a turnover on the ensuing possession and Lexi Donarski made three free throws down the stretch to keep K-State winless in conference play.
Joens led the Cyclones (11-5, 7-2) with 22 points and eight rebounds. Kristin Scott added 15 points — with 10 coming in the first quarter. Scott got in foul trouble in the second half, which contributed to ISU’s offensive struggles after the break.
The Cyclones shot 33.9 percent overall (19 of 56) and 23.3 (7-30) percent from long range, but managed to grind out the victory despite all of that.
“That’s the best word, grinding,” said Fennelly, whose team solidified its hold on second place in the league standings. “We talked about at shoot around today being as determined as we could be. We knew it would be a hard game. We knew they would tempo the game. They did. They did a great job. We missed a lot of shots that on a normal night maybe we make, but when we weren’t scoring there in the fourth quarter for a few minutes, they weren’t scoring either. So we did — we (ground) it out. We played the game the way we had to play it tonight to win. (A) really, really gutsy effort by our team.”
ISU led by as many as 11 points in the second quarter, but trailed by three points early in the fourth quarter before reviving to finish strong. Rae Johnson drained a crucial 3-pointer to knot the score at 54-all. Joens’ back-cut layup with 34 seconds left gave the Cyclones a lead they would not relinquish, though K-State did get off a desperation heave as the buzzer blared that was off the mark.
Ayoka Lee paced the Wildcats (5-8, 0-6) with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
The Cyclones completed a season sweep of Kansas State — and will try to do the same Sunday against No. 9 Baylor at Hilton Coliseum.
“They want to win and so do we, so we just are gonna have to battle,” Joens said of the matchup with the Bears.
But back to Thursday night. And back to Fennelly’s 700-win milestone. He was willing to divulge some details about the postgame celebration of his feat. They dropped confetti on his head in the locker room. They smiled and shared hugs. It’s that sense of “family” that matters most to Fennelly. Not a number — no matter how impressive.
“They had T-shirts made (with) 700 in them,” Fennelly said. “And I was surprised, I looked up in the stands before the game and (wife) Deb was there. (Son) Steven, Andrea, Lyndsey — all the grandkids were here. I didn’t know they were coming, which made it even more nerve-racking, but it was great to be able to share a special moment with the most special people in my life — and people that have had to put up with me and put up with this job the entire time. It’s a blessing and lucky that they could see it.”
Everyone on the team was wearing that T-shirt, which also included a picture of Fennelly’s face, which he joked, was “bad.”
There’s nothing bad about what he’s meant to Iowa State, though — those players and fellow coaches, his extended “family.”
700 wins don’t come easy. But they did come because of support from family, players past and present, colleagues and Fennelly’s devotion to the program.
“You don’t get enough of these in coaching, I don’t think and, you know, it just — and as I’m walking into the locker room I’m thinking of all the people at Toledo, at Iowa State,” Fennelly said. “My bosses. My staff. All the phenomenal players and most importantly, my family. It’s just one of those moments that (is) very surreal. It makes you think about those things, especially in a year where we’ve had so many bad things to think about; the way the world is and politics and COVID (-19), It’s just‚ it made me feel like it’s something special because of the people I got to do it with. I’ve been truly blessed and just very fortunate that we can get past that thing.”