Women's Basketball

WBB: The practice that sparked a Big 12 championship

Mar 12, 2023; Kansas City, MO, USA; Iowa State Cyclones coach Bill Fennelly cuts down the net after winning the Big 12 Championship against the Texas Longhorns at Municipal Auditorium. Mandatory Credit: William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Iowa State lost three games in a row to open the month of February this season. This was heading into a week where it would face Big 12 powerhouses that are Texas and Baylor.

Not good.

Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly called his team’s ensuing practice its best of the year and on Sunday, just 28 days later, the Cyclones defeated Texas 61-51 to win its first Big 12 championship since 2001.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt – you lose three in a row and you’ve got Texas and Baylor next, it’s not looking real good,” Fennelly said. “(That) Sunday, we practiced 30 minutes and it was the best practice we’ve had all season. I told my staff, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to beat Texas, but we’re going to show up.'”

On Sunday in Kansas City, playing a NCAA Tournament team for the third day in a row, Iowa State showed up in the same way it did during that practice, beating Texas 61-51 in a raucous Municipal Auditorium to win the Big 12 championship.

“That Sunday afternoon (after the practice), I was surprised because we were kind of down,” Fennelly said. “But when you have the kind of kids that we have, I shouldn’t be surprised.”

Ashley Joens broke down in tears after Iowa State’s 76-52 win over Texas Tech on senior night. It was a rare sight to see for the composed Big 12 tournament’s unanimous selection for Most Outstanding Player. Even Fennelly didn’t believe that it happened at first.

At that time, earning a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament had seemed almost out of reach, unless something like this happened in Kansas City.

“I don’t know. That’s for someone else to decide. I would think that that was discussed. We have a really good team that’s playing really well and we have amazing fans that will show up.”

While the team waits to hear what’s next, there will be plenty to reminisce on from the 40 minutes on the court Sunday.

Joens’ 28 points came with eight free throws and 11 fouls drawn during the game. She drew five fouls in the third quarter and helped contribute to a 21-12 advantage in the frame.

“I think it’s just one of those things we talked to Ash about,” Fennelly said. “The great players don’t always have the biggest moments, and not that she needs validation, but when you lead a team to a tournament championship, you’re in rarified air.”

Emily Ryan was tasked with facing a hellacious guard in Rori Harmon, who uses her physicality to try and create turnovers while point guards carry the ball up.

Ryan finished the game with only three turnovers.

Lexi Donarski collected nine points, four rebounds, two assists as well as a pair of free throws that gave Iowa State a 12-point lead in the final six minutes.

“From a leadership standpoint – Emily Ryan and Lexi Donarski – I wouldn’t trade anything. We have the best backcourt in the country when it comes to playing, competing, leading, and taking responsibility. I think all of that stuff kind of came together.”

The win give the team more confidence.

One of the few knocks on Fennelly as a coach includes his team’s inability in the post to beat taller, more physical opponents.

“All three teams that we played have very, very different styles – both offensively and defensively,” Donarski said. “I think that prepares us for the tournament. Now, no matter what type of team that we face, whether they’re super physical or they’ve won a ton, we have some experience against that and we no we can win against that.”

This team did it in front of a crowd that was louder than any through the weekend in that building, even though the men’s team lost its semifinal game on Friday.

“I’m just so proud of our team and so proud of our fans,” Fennelly said. “Not just winning, but they’re going to remember that atmosphere for the rest of their lives.”

For all the times Iowa State was counted out this season, whether it was that three-game stretch, the injury to Stephanie Soares, or the late loss it took to Kansas in Big 12 play, Iowa State responded on Sunday.

It was a storybook ending to a season that started with high expectations, and those might just be back, too.