Iowa State Cyclones women’s basketball head coach Bill Fennelly celebrates with Iowa State Cyclones guard Emily Ryan (11), center Audi Crooks (55), and forward Jalynn Bristow (1) after winning 74-64 over West Virginia 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 — No. 4 Baylor came straight to the Iowa State campus after suffering its first loss of the season Wednesday at Kansas.
The Bears have likely been in a foul mood ever since — all of which points to an extra-arduous matchup at noon Saturday for the host Cyclones.
“Our schedule’s been playing a Big 12 team that’s really pissed off because they lost, or something bad happened,” said ISU head coach Bill Fennelly, whose team (11-4, 4-0) is tied for first atop the league standings. “So we’re gonna get another one Saturday.”
That’s if Friday’s dangerous blizzard subsides, as expected. Bone-chilling temperatures will then beset the state and that’s another thing Baylor (14-1, 3-1) can’t be enjoying.
No one is, of course, and the treacherous road conditions could lead to a greatly diminished crowd at Hilton Coliseum a mere three days after Cyclone fans helped their team turn a 19-point second-half deficit into a 65-55 win over No. 24 West Virginia.
“We had Hilton behind us,” ISU’s first-team All-Big 12 point guard Emily Ryan said after that win. “And that does more for us than people realize. You don’t realize how loud and impactful that is until you’re in it and you experience it.”
That highly supportive element may be sharply reduced for the Cyclones on Saturday, but that won’t dampen the team’s enthusiasm as it seeks to win a pair of top-25 matchups in a single week for the first time since 2010.
“Baylor’s the most talented team we’ve played and I don’t think it’s close,” Fennelly said. “So we went into the week knowing this was gonna be without question the hardest week up ‘till now, with the style of play that we were gonna face. Baylor’s so skilled and so talented and so old that we’ll have our hands full. Obviously, disappointed that the crowd will be impacted by the weather, but we’ve just got to go out and play the game the way we can and hopefully play the type of game we need to play to compete against a top-five team.”
That means ISU must remain tightly connected. That’s been the key for a team that features five freshmen — led by forward Addy Brown and center Audi Crooks — in prominent roles, especially since Ryan missed the first nine games because of a leg injury.
Crooks leads the Cyclones in scoring at 16.3 points per game. Brown contributes an average of 14.9 points while leading the team in rebounding (9.1) and assists (5.6). Neither play like freshmen and Fennelly’s been impressed by their ability to weather storms of every variety.
“They know they’re good in a good way,” Fennelly said. “I think they feel they play better when they are excited and they do show their emotion. It’s not something we’ve seen here. Our fans are used to seeing Ashley Joens be a great player, but you didn’t see Ash react in that way. But Audi and Addy, I think, really believe that’s part of their success. They love to make plays. I think they enjoy the reaction when they do make big plays and I think you saw that the other night.”
What sets Crooks and Brown further apart from some young ISU stars of the past, Fennelly added, is “they don’t get to stressed out about the bad (plays)” that inevitably come.
“A lot of freshmen, they just get overwhelmed by that,” he said. “They really have a next-play mentality, which is something they came here with. We have not taught them that. They came here with that and I think that’s been a huge part of the way they’ve managed to be successful.”
How will that carry over to the Cyclones’ toughest Big 12 matchup to date? Stay tuned, but don’t expect any of ISU’s players to shrink from that challenge.
“At the end of the day, you’re gonna roll the ball out there,” said Ryan, who’s shooting a blistering 68 percent from the field since returning Dec. 17 in the win over Troy. “It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter how young you are. It’s the same game. You’re playing 40 minutes. You’re just playing basketball.”