No. 7 Iowa State will face its first big test of the 2022-23 season on Wednesday when it travels to Cedar Falls to take on UNI (6:00 p.m. ESPN+).
National pundits will scoff at the thought of this game being close, but the last time a game between these teams was separated by more than 10 points was in December of 2013.
Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly expects that trend to continue.
“Probably the same,” Fennelly said. “I’ve said many times – people outside of the state don’t understand this – but they’re three of the toughest games on our schedule when you play these in-state games. (That’s) especially (true) when you go on the road. They’re always very well prepared. They’re going to play hard. They’re not going to beat themselves. That’s the nature of this game for us – first road game of the year. We’ll see how we do.”
The Cyclones come in as prepared as ever to face UNI – with a Sweet 16 team that added a pair of starters to the same roster. They’ve won the last two meetings against UNI, as well.
However, that doesn’t change what this game is: a battle between two teams with rivalry game pride on the line – and that gets harder when you’re the road team.
“People probably question your sanity for playing these games,” Fennelly said. “It’s probably the biggest game on UNI’s schedule at home. When you look at their roster, 10 of their 12 kids are from Iowa.”
That hasn’t hindered the four Division I programs in the state from keeping the home-and-home series going, though. Or maybe rather the two ‘Power 5’ programs would be better use of phrasing.
As fans have seen on the men’s side, with the transition from that system to the Big 4 Classic to the eventual lack of wanting a potentially ‘bad looking’ loss on a tournament resume, the programs stopped playing.
Fennelly, and the other head coaches, see many positives from the annual rivalry matchups.
“It’s a great game,” Fennelly said. “We gain a lot from it overall that other people don’t anticipate. You get one of those early, emotional kind of games. We play three of them in about a three-week period. We play a really tough schedule – those three (opponents) are probably at the top of the list.”
This season’s game against the Panthers comes at a unique time for the Cyclones.
With it being the first true test for the team, it entertains the questions of what Stephanie Soares can play like, if the chemistry will be as solid as it was in Denae Fritz’ breakout game a season ago and just what the breakdown will be like in minutes played.
“It’s a really big game for us,” point guard Emily Ryan said. “They’re a well-coached team, they do things the right way and they just know how to play us really well. They always play hard, physical and they do the right things. For us, it’s a challenge on if we can come ready, come with our A-game and we’ll see what happens.”
In last season’s game, the Cyclones narrowly escaped with a 70-69 victory over the Panthers.
Although, UNI had a few chances on the final possession to make a go-ahead shot, but the defense prevailed.
“For us defensively, we’ve got to be really, really good,” Fennelly said. “Kam Finley just went crazy last year against us. Maya McDermott is coming off her career game. I’m a huge Grace Boffeli fan – she plays hard and rebounds the ball. Every game we play them is a mid-60’s, low-70’s close game. We’ve got to find those little things and then make a free throw or make a layup and do well in those special situations.”
The trio of Panthers combined for 46 points of the team’s 84-64 win over St. Louis.
This is no slouch of a UNI team, led by longtime coach Tanya Warren.
“I think what Coach Warren has done there is really something unique and special,” Fennelly said. She’s not only a great coach, she’s a phenomenal person. I can say that without any hesitation because my son worked for her and I wouldn’t have let that happen if I didn’t respect her as a human being.”
Iowa State knows what it needs to do, but the execution is the biggest key.
UNI knows how to attack in these games, and it will be as big of a battle as a team can see on day 10 of the college basketball season.
“You’re going to have to be able to run your offense and know what the counter is,” Fennelly said. “Someone else is going to have to score, because they’re going to have four people guarding Ashley Joens. It’s the first road game. We’ll see how it goes.”
“They prepare for us as good as anyone,” Fennelly said.