Mar 12, 2023; Kansas City, MO, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Ashley Joens (24) drives to the basket during the second half against the Texas Longhorns at Municipal Auditorium. Mandatory Credit: William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports
When Iowa State’s name appeared on the NCAA Tournament selection show on Sunday, coach Bill Fennelly had all the familiar feelings going through his mind, much like in his other 21 appearances.
Then he saw his opponent – the No. 12 seed Toledo Rockets (2:30 p.m. CT ESPN2) – a program Fennelly got his start at and helped build.
“Damn, I don’t want to play my friends,” Fennelly said on his thoughts when he noticed Toledo would be his team’s opponent. “Literally, (Toledo coach Tricia Cullop) and I had been texting. (I congratulated) them on winning (their conference tournament). It’s always great when Toledo wins. It’s always great when Toledo beats Bowling Green, too. That’s always a bonus for us, Toledo people.”
Fennelly joked to the media members in attendance, with the same moxy he shows in Ames, about his time in Toledo.
It’s still very much a part of him, and how it built his coaching philosophy.
That goes without even mentioning his duo of assistant coaches that came to Ames with Fennelly.
“You don’t win 16 games in a row by accident,” Fennelly said. “I coached in the MAC for seven years. That’s a really, really good league. And to know that you go into a conference tournament, believe me, we did it seven times, and you have to win to get in the NCAA Tournament, the edge that you build up is really something that a lot of people don’t understand. Our fans at Iowa State don’t understand that. Tennessee fans don’t understand that. ‘Hey, if we finish fifth or sixth in our league, we’re in the tournament.’ That doesn’t happen in the MAC. You know how good they are or how tough they are, and they just have a winning culture. Tricia has been there 15 years, and you look at what they have done with their team, it’s very impressive.”
The Rockets are led by by Quinesha Lockett, a senior guard that averages 19.8 points per game away from home.
She’s the engine that helped lead Toledo past Bowling Green in the MAC championship, where she recorded 17 points, five rebounds, and six assists on 6-11 shooting.
“She’s a dynamic athlete,” Fennelly said. “She reminds us of J.J. Quinerly at West Virginia – a kid that can just find ways to score. She’s really good, you’re not the MAC player of the Year without being really good. She gets a lot of shots off – she shot it 200 more times than anyone else on her team. She’s got kind of the Ashley Joens playbook.”
That comes with a unique offense that Cullop’s team runs.
“They’ve got a very complicated offense – they run a lot of stuff, so that’s going to be unique to us,” Fennelly said. “They’ve got a lot of kids that can shoot the three, interchangeable post play – anything you would expect from a good team and they’re obviously playing with an amazing amount of confidence right now.”
That offensive philosophy was part of how Toledo was able to beat No. 14 Michigan on the road earlier this season.
And you don’t have to tell Fennelly when the 71-68 victory occurred, he knows what that can do to a group no matter when it was.
“Well, I think no matter when the game was at Michigan, I promise you, I’ve done this — I don’t know anything about their team personality-wise, but I would promise you that my guess is they talk a lot about, ‘Hey, we beat Michigan at Michigan. We beat Michigan at Michigan,'” Fennelly said. “Doesn’t matter when it was. They know how to win. They have won some close games. Only a good team, a tough-minded team, a connected team, a well-coached team wins that game against Buffalo. And that’s how you get to this point.”
Iowa State ended up earning a five seed, which means a trip to Tennessee instead of a weekend in Ames where its the favored team. That couldn’t be further from the focus to close out the week.
“We’ve had a good couple days preparing,” Emily Ryan said. “Couple good practices, high energy coming into the tournament. So I like the spot we’re in, and we have another opportunity to practice on the court, we’re going to play on today. So we’re going to have another good practice and get ready to go.”
The Cyclones are in the NCAA Tournament, and their first two games just happen to be in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“We’re just happy to be in the NCAA Tournament,” Ashley Joens said. “Obviously, you dream about it as a little kid, you watch it. So to be able to be here and get the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament is huge. When we step out on the court you are not really thinking about what’s going on around you, you’re focused on what’s going on at that moment and focused on your scouting report, what you’re doing, and the game itself.”