Women's Basketball

“COME ON NOW”: How Bill Fennelly helped rekindle the Cy-Hawk women’s basketball rivalry

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

 AMESBill Fennelly looked at the schedule and became perplexed. Then a bit perturbed. And, finally, wholly determined to change it.

 The year? 1995. 

 The problem with the schedule entering his first season as Iowa State’s women’s basketball coach? Iowa wasn’t on it.

 So Fennelly decided to find out why — and the answer caused even greater consternation.

 “I was told they basically didn’t want to waste their time with us because we were so bad,” said Fennelly, who now prepares his freshmen-fueled Cyclones (4-3) for Wednesday’s 6 p.m. Cy-Hawk matchup with the No. 4 Hawkeyes (8-1) in what’s become an annual tradition since his second season in Ames. “And my thing to our administration and Angie Lee, who was the head coach at Iowa at the time, (was), ‘I don’t care how bad we are, or perceived to be, or how bad you’re going to beat us. This game has to be played. It’s Iowa State and Iowa. Come on now.’”

 Fennelly’s pitch proved to be persuasive. The Hawkeyes won the first meeting of the rekindled rivalry and the Cyclones reeled off six in a row before the women’s Cy-Hawk game settled into its generally back-and-forth competitive rhythm. That — along with the presence of Iowa star Caitlin Clark — is why Hilton Coliseum is sold out on Wednesday. It’s also why ESPN2’s cameras will be rolling live, proving this once cast-away game is firmly entrenched as a big-time national draw.

 “The opportunity to really have a two-hour infomercial about your school, about your fans, about the state — that’s a pretty cool thing to be a part of,” Fennelly said.

 What’s far from cool is trying to devise ways to corral Clark. So Fennelly won’t even try much. It’s a fool’s errand, so the Cyclones will focus on playing sound defense overall against an Iowa team that’s won six of the past seven games in the series. 

 “She’s gonna get hers no matter what,” ISU senior forward/guard Nyamer Diew said. “It’s fine, but (it’s about) trying to slow down the rest of them, and knowing that it’s not a one-man game — one person can’t beat a whole team.”

 The Cyclones present their own matchup problem in freshman center Audi Crooks. The versatile 6-3 post from Algona is a budding star. She’s averaging 16 points per game this season and is shooting 66.7 percent from the field.

 “She’s really good,” Iowa’s Clark said. “She’s really physical, hard to defend. She keeps her hands high, doesn’t bring the ball down.”

 Clark, as Fennelly told reporters, is “unguardable,” but it’s the reigning national player of the year’s supporting cast that takes the Hawkeyes from very good to great.

 “Last year they’re playing in the national championship game (and) most of our kids are worried about senior prom,” Fennelly said. “So it’s a little bit different world, but you do the best you can.”

 That, of course, is all anyone can do. It’s what Fennelly did when he took the job at ISU, saw that Iowa hasn’t been in the schedule for three straight seasons, and resolved to remedy that situation. “Come on now” went from a tongue-in-cheek plea to an apt description of where both programs now reside: In the national spotlight on an annual basis.

“The atmosphere, it’s honestly unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” Crooks said. “It’s just people who all love women’s basketball in the same place — loud, cheering for who they’re cheering for. And I think that here at Hilton, it’ll be nothing short. I think it’ll be even better. Probably 10 times, as as loud and as hectic, and being able to experience that atmosphere while being on the floor while being surrounded by a sold-out Hilton Coliseum? That’s going to be a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”