Women's Basketball

STANZ: Fennelly’s monster

AMES — The Iowa State women’s basketball team rolled on Monday.

Folks should get used to that. It is going to happen a lot this winter.

Bill Fennelly has himself a squad and Cleveland State found that out firsthand in Monday’s season opener when Iowa State walked away with a dominant 87-54 win that probably wasn’t even as close as the 33-point deficit would indicate.

Iowa State could have won by as many points as Iowa State wanted to because this team is built to beat anybody. They’re built to contend with the best teams in women’s college basketball and built to destroy teams that don’t enter that same class.

Monday was exhibit No. 1.

“If you look at our team, and say, ‘Well, I would say Iowa State’s playing at the level that maybe they’re capable,’ then I’m not saying we’re gonna win every game, but I think I think we can play with a lot of people,” head coach Bill Fennelly said postgame. “We have a lot of different lineups. I think we can defend. I think we can score all over the place. I said it after the exhibition game, and I believe it, I think we have seven starting players, and they’re interchangeable.”

This Iowa State team possesses a pick-your-poison quality that all the best college basketball teams have. They’re not dominated and driven by any one player and they won’t have to rely on any one facet of the game.

They’ve got one of the best all-around players in college basketball in Ashley Joens, who opened the season by dropping a ho-hum 28 points and snagged 11 rebounds for the 50th double-double of her illustrious career.

They’ve got the post presence they’ve so sorely missed in recent seasons in 6-foot-6 transfer center Stephanie Soares, who added 15 points and 14 rebounds in only 21 minutes of play in her first official game as a Cyclone.

They’ve got one of the nation’s best backcourt duos in Emily Ryan and Lexi Donarski, a veteran pair that spearhead everything Iowa State does on the defensive end of the court.

Those four players would play and start for nearly every team in America, and they’re all playing together in Ames.

Denae Fritz‘s return from last year’s season-ending injury adds another backcourt option who gets after it on both ends. Nyamer Diew is versatile enough to play anywhere from point guard to center in Iowa State’s largely positionless style of ball.

Honestly, this is a group that can play any style of ball. They’re smart. They’re veterans. There isn’t much a team can throw at them that they haven’t seen before.

Talent is nice, but smarts, toughness and competitiveness are what elevate a good team to a great team.

Iowa State has the tools to be a great team.

“Steph got in foul trouble and sat most of the first half,” Fennelly said. “We went small, which we haven’t even practiced. It’s a credit to the kids that they can adapt and find ways to be competitive and do the things they need to do.”

Iowa State being able to go small without practicing it and hardly missing a beat in a game is a perfect example of this team’s mental makeup.

Punches are going to come, and this team just rolls with them.

Onto the next thing. Onto the next play.

Give them a new wrinkle and it might trip them up for a moment, but they’re going to keep playing and figure it out without even needing a timeout from the sidelines.

Cleveland State was running actions offensively that Iowa State hadn’t scouted. Fennelly said the Vikings ran only one action they’d seen on film and practiced against in the days ahead of the game.

Doesn’t matter. This team doesn’t get rattled.

They just keep playing ball.

“What that means is you compete, you go fall back on your fundamentals, you communicate on the court,” Fennelly said. “Lex and Emily, in my mind, I wouldn’t trade them for any backcourt in the country. I mean, you’re sitting on the bench, and they’re coaching the game as we go. They’re competitive. They understand the game.”

Donarski and Ryan are merely the tip of the Cyclone spear.

Joens is a cheat code at this point in her college career and probably could have scored 50 points on Monday if she’d wanted to.

Those three alone would make Iowa State a really good team, but adding Soares to the equation elevates this team’s ceiling from really good to Final Four good.

“I’ve been here a long time, but we’ve never had someone like that. And maybe never will (again),” Fennelly said of Soares. “She’s shown in two games, that unique ability she has at both ends of the floor to help our team.”

The biggest thing for this team is there will be a lot of games like this one on Monday. The Cyclones will play Thursday night against Southern before traveling to Cedar Falls to play UNI next Wednesday then back home to play Columbia on Nov. 20 before going to Portland to play in the Phil Knight Invitational.

Iowa State will be heavy favorites in all three of those games before they face Power 5 competition for the first time out west against Michigan State.

Fennelly’s team is going to be a heavy favorite on a lot of nights once America gets its eyes on this team. They’re squarely on a collision course with in-state archrival No. 4 Iowa on Dec. 7 in Iowa City.

It is hard to judge what you’re looking at when your team is so much better than its opponents, but Fennelly has been doing this for a long time.

He knows exactly what he’s looking for.

“I think that’s the challenge,” Fennelly said. “At halftime, you know, I told them, I’ve done this a long time, but I’ve never heard a coach give a great halftime speech when they have a big lead. Cleveland State kept playing, but we did some things that we need to be better. For us, it’s obviously the evaluations got to be, what do we get after our top seven players?”

Iowa State knows exactly what it is going to get from Joens, Donarski, Ryan, Soares, Fritz, Diew and Morgan Kane on any given night.

What it gets from that next group — Maggie Espenmiler-McGraw, Shantavia Dawkins and Izzi Zingaro — is going to elevate this team even further. Those three are the ones that give Fennelly even more lineup versatility and give the Cyclones the ability to roll through anything from injuries to foul trouble.

“When you go in the game, those three, how are you going to earn some minutes on this team, and they’re hard to find,” Fennelly said. “Those top seven are pretty good, but you can’t win the seven, so I think, for me, the evaluation is what are you doing when you get that opportunity to play.”

If any team could win with seven, it might be this year’s Iowa State team, because that top seven is just that good.

This team can get even better. This monster can get even scarier.

Don’t cover your eyes, though.

You’re not going to want to miss something.

Jared Stansbury

administrator

Jared a native of Clarinda, Iowa, started as the Cyclone Fanatic intern in August 2013, primarily working as a videographer until starting on the women’s basketball beat prior to the 2014-15 season. Upon earning his Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Iowa State in May 2016, Jared was hired as the site’s full-time staff writer, taking over as the primary day-to-day reporter on football and men’s basketball. He was elevated to the position of managing editor in January 2020. He is a regular contributor on 1460 KXNO in Des Moines and makes regular guest appearances on radio stations across the Midwest. Jared resides in Ankeny with his four-year-old puggle, Lolo.

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