Just over seven months removed from a coaching change and press conference that shook women’s college basketball, a pair of long-time rivals will face off once again on Thursday in Baton Rouge.
The location, circumstances, and teams will look different, but make no mistake – this matchup between Iowa State and LSU (8 p.m. on ESPN2) will be another Bill Fennelly vs. Kim Mulkey battle.
“We’ve had a lot of great games with Kim,” Fennelly said. “Obviously, some of the highlights of our program recently were against Baylor and I know she’ll do a great job at LSU. I even (called them) a couple times in the staff meeting today Baylor and not LSU.”
Mulkey departed from Baylor in April to take over the program at LSU. She was at Baylor for 21 years and won three NCAA championships during her career in Waco.
Thursday’s game in Baton Rouge, part of the Big 12-SEC Challenge, will be the 35th meeting between the coaches.
Fennelly is looking for the same types of things that he saw in the first 34.
“They look the same,” Fennelly said. “They’re big, they’re physical. They’re going to pound you around the basket. They play with a lot of energy (and) a lot of emotion – the kind of emotion that (Mulkey) has always shown.”
Iowa State is trying to keep its undefeated start to the season alive, a 7-0 run that saw the squad take home a trophy from the Gulf Coast Showcase last weekend.
“Obviously, when you go on the road and play an SEC team, it’s a tremendous challenge,” Fennelly said. “It’s by far the biggest challenge our team has had up to this time, but that’s what non-conference games – and these challenge games – are supposed to be about.”
LSU’s started the season off 5-1 with its only loss coming to a Florida Gulf Coast team that is now in the AP Top 25.
The Cyclones, meanwhile, are battling depth issues.
Four players on the team played nearly all 120 minutes of the three games in the Showcase, because of injury issues.
Denae Fritz, Nyamer Diew, and Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw are all out with injuries and will not play on Thursday against LSU.
According to Fennelly, Diew and Espenmiller-McGraw have a chance to return to the court before the Christmas break. Fritz’s injury is more serious.
“I don’t think we’re where we wanted to be because you don’t have (those three) in your normal rotation,” Fennelly said. “But, to the kids’ credit, we’ve played seven times and found a way to win seven times. We’re going to see where we are (with the injuries) at the Christmas break and then make some decisions.”
The players that are available, however, are ready to go for their biggest test thus far.
Sophomore guard Aubrey Joens stressed the growth of the team a weekend ago, which saw a UMass team come back from being down 19 points to challenge the Cyclones and make it a close game.
“I think it was important to see that,” Joens said. “When (UMass) came out (of the halftime break) ready to go and we weren’t able to get stops and score, it definitely helped us to know that we can (overcome) that.”
Joens, in her second season, has been integral to the Cyclones scoring this year.
She was 5-9 from the 3-point line in the team’s last game and leads the squad in both 3-pointers made as well as percentage.
“Knowing that we beat Baylor last year and, in the second game, played them really close,” Joens said. “Knowing that they play similar, we know that we can adjust our gameplan to play against them. (Shooting is) definitely going to be big. We know we have to knock down shots and get our legs into it.”
With how LSU plays, post play will be the cog that keeps the game turning.
Morgan Kane and Beatriz Jordao have stepped up, thus far, in trying to solidify themselves in the frontcourt.
“They’ve been really huge,” Joens said. “They did really well this week and we’re going to need them to keep getting offensive and defensive rebounds. Knowing that (Kane) was so close (to a double-double) was sad, she’s been working, but she’ll have more chances.”
Kane finished the last game one rebound away from a double-double for the Cyclones. At the end of the day, she and Jordao combined for 15 points and 12 boards on the night.
For Iowa State to tackle LSU on the road, it will take both shooting and that kind of play from the bigs. It’s not a short ask from a team so light on depth, either.
But if there’s anything to sense as to a theme this season, it will include the Cyclones stepping up and finding a way to win another big game.
They try to do it again on Thursday night on a national stage.