Women's Basketball

“Growth” is ISU star center Audi Crooks’ favorite word and she embodies it for the No. 24 Cyclones

Iowa State Cyclones center Audi Crooks (55) celebrates with teammates after a three-point play against West Virginia during the fourth quarter in the Big-12 conference matchup at Hilton Coliseum on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

 AMES Audi Crooks’ favorite word isn’t “score.” It’s not “rebound.” It’s not even “win.”

No, Iowa State’s star 6-3 center — the program’s first-ever freshman to attain Big 12 player of the week honors on Monday — adores a different word that embodies all of the aforementioned ones: “Growth.”

 “That’s Audi’s word,” said longtime Cyclone head coach Bill Fennelly, whose surging 24th-ranked team (12-4, 5-0 Big 12) faces Texas Tech (13-5, 2-3) at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Lubbock. “She’ll always say, ‘Coach, a little more growth today, a little more growth today.’” 

 Crooks, who starred in high school at Algona Garrigan, has certainly adapted to the Division I college game exceptionally well. She ranks seventh in the Big 12 in scoring at 16.7 points per game and third in the league in field goal percentage at 61.5. And she’s compiling those heady numbers in an average of 22.4 minutes per game — though that number, like all of her others, has been rising.

 “Her conditioning’s better,” Fennelly said. “Her understanding of the game is better. She’s got to play defense. She’s doing a lot of things besides just scoring.”

 And she’s smiling while doing those things, playing the game with a joie de vivre that’s infectious for her mostly young ISU team.

 “My teammates trusting me and getting the ball inside — they know where it needs to be,” said Crooks, who’s scored 20-plus points in three of the Cyclones’ five conference wins. “And (senior guard) Hannah (Belanger) and (fellow freshman forward) Addy (Brown) and (senior forward Nyamer Diew), I mean, everybody on this team can knock down a 3, so it’s really not about me. It’s more of a collective effort and I’m able to score because of who I’m surrounded by.”

 Brown ranks among the top five in the Big 12 in both rebounding and assists. Belanger’s shooting 50 percent from 3-point range in the past four games (16-for-32). And Crooks is Crooks — a mismatch problem for every opponent.

 “I think (Fennelly) realized how good Crooks can be on the low block,” Baylor head coach Nikki Collen said after her team’s 66-63 loss to the Cyclones on Saturday. “And as her conditioning and stamina have gotten better, he’s figured out how to use her defensively.”

 That part of Crooks’ game remains very much a work in progress, but she’ll need to be at her best in protecting the rim against the guard-heavy Lady Raiders, who are led by Bailey Maupin and Jasmine Shivers — both of whom average 15 points per game.

 “When you play in this league, you know you’d better show up,” said Fennelly, whose team has beaten Texas Tech in Lubbock six straight times. “Yeah, we’re 5-0, but every one of those games could have gone the other way. I coached in the MAC a long time ago and there were games where if the bus got (there) I knew we were gonna win. That doesn’t happen in this league.”

 All of which makes “growth” the perfect buzzword for ISU, which still must make massive strides to vie for a conference title en route to a potentially big splash later in March.

 “They trust themselves,” Fennelly said. “They trust each other. And I think they trust the way we feel we have to play and you just keep grinding.”