AMES — The entire Iowa State women’s basketball season to this point has been a learning process.
That might be hard to understand when you consider the talent this program returned, the talent this program added and the sky-high preseason expectations this program faced.
It has indeed been a learning process, though.
Figuring out how to best insert transfer center Stephanie Soares was a learning process. The Cyclones spent basically the entire non-conference portion of their schedule finding the formula. This was a significant new piece joining the fold of this veteran roster.
Then, Soares got hurt, suffering a season-ending ACL tear in the team’s loss to Oklahoma last Sunday in Norman. Suddenly, the Cyclones are back at square one, albeit a much more advanced square one than most programs, but they’re back there all the same.
Iowa State did what it needed in order to survive the first step of its new-look learning process on Wednesday, holding on to beat Kansas State, 67-56, at Hilton Coliseum.
Bill Fennelly‘s team certainly was not at its best. The Cyclones didn’t play overly well or execute at a very high level. They still won a Big 12 game. What more can you ask for from a team that’s re-learning how to play without their star 6-foot-6 center in the middle?
“I think we talked before the game about finding a way to have some success given the situation we’re in,” Fennelly said. “One of those ways is to have some balance. I thought our balance at both ends of the floor was phenomenal.”
With Soares or without her, talent is not an issue for this Iowa State team. The lineup Fennelly rolled out there to start against Kansas State was nearly the same group that started the program’s Sweet 16 game against Creighton last March.
There is still enough for talent on this roster for Iowa State to compete at or very near the top of the Big 12 this winter. That talent will just have to be utilized in a different way than anybody expected it to be even at this time a week ago.
Iowa State built a significant amount of its offensive attack this year around Soares’ ability to own the painted area. Her ability to score all over the floor opened up opportunities for all the other great players on Iowa State’s roster.
It made life much easier for everyone.
Life wasn’t easy for anybody on Wednesday in Ames. Just ask Ashley Joens, who started the game by going 1-of-7 from the field in the first quarter, and was just 2-of-10 from the field at halftime, including a 1-of-7 mark 3-point range.
For probably the first time since last March, Iowa State’s opponent had built its entire defensive game plan around containing Joens. Kansas State sent aggressive double teams her way throughout the majority of the night and spent the rest of the time sitting back in a zone threatening the Cyclones to beat them from deep.
Iowa State did enough to get itself to the finish line with a win, shooting 10-of-32 for 31.3 percent from 3-point range, but that’s an area that will need significant improvement if this team hopes to still reach the lofty goals it set for itself prior to Soares injury.
The Cyclones desperately needed someone to step up alongside Joens, and Lexi Donarski answered the call on this night, knocking down four 3-pointers on her way to tallying 14 points.
“(Donarski)’s really becoming one of those kids that you count on every single game,” Fennelly said. “She’s gonna guard someone really good and she’s gonna a score… I joke with you guys all time about people talk about a two way player. I thought that’s what you’re supposed to be in basketball, but she certainly is one of those and changes the game on both ends of the floor for us.”
Iowa State needs Emily Ryan to play like one of the best point guards in college basketball, and she did that against the Wildcats, tallying 14 points, eight assists, and 11 rebounds.
Denae Fritz scored a career-high 14 points, snagged seven rebounds and blocked three shots. They’ll need more performances like this from Fritz in order to recoup some of the lost production.
Joens, hot start or not, is going to get hers. She rallied from her poor first quarter to score 14 points and grab nine rebounds. She shot just 5-of-15 from the field and 3-of-11 from 3-point range, but that’s not shocking considering the increased level of attention.
This team is going to go as far as its star trio can carry them, and that’s why going back to square one with this team might not be such a bad thing on some level.
Square one for this team means getting back to playing like a team that was in the running for the Big 12 title until the final days last season, nearly won the Big 12 tournament then won two games in the NCAA Tournament. It means utilizing the roster most people expected to return just without the 6-foot-6 future pro that fell into the program’s lap courtesy of a transfer from an NAIA school.
The Cyclones are going to have to get back to the basics of the ‘Iowa State Way.’
They’re going to have to get back to the running and gunning, high-powered 3-point shooting style of play that has made this program a fan favorite since Fennelly’s arrival in Ames.
“Our whole system from the summer on was built in a certain way,” Fennelly said. “Now, the system is reverted back, which is fine, but that’s going to take some time. If you play hard and and do the things that we did tonight, see the ball go in the basket a little bit, I think their confidence will come back.”
All of this is going to be a process for Fennelly, his staff and this team. Everyone got awfully used to having that safety blanket in the paint who can score and dominate any team on the schedule.
There are going to be bumps in the road, and one of them very well could come on Sunday when Iowa State travels to Austin to take on perennial Big 12 power Texas. Do not let that phase you into thinking this team isn’t capable of competing for the Big 12 regular season title.
This team, by and large, has already proven they’re capable of hanging in the race. They’re just having to re-learn the way they played that carried them there.
“The success that group had last year, a lot of that is still in the room,” Fennelly said. “We’ve got to play that way and adjust and hopefully every day, we’ll get a little bit better. We’ll have to show a lot more film from last year than this year.”