Women's Basketball

ISU accomplished Bill Fennelly’s two pregame goals in a rousing 66-63 win over No. 4 Baylor

Iowa State Cyclones center Audi Crooks (55) looks for a shot around Baylor Bears forward Madison Bartley (3) during the second quarter in the Big-12 conference matchup at Hilton Coliseum on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

 AMESBill Fennelly trotted toward the locker room with his arms raised high, fists pumping, as the relatively small, but hardy Hilton Coliseum crowd roared.

 Iowa State’s veteran head coach basked in the moment after his Cyclones upended No. 4 Baylor, 66-63, on a snow-swept Saturday afternoon — then emphatically swung his arm toward the rafters, leaving the floor with a remarkably swift gait.

 “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the most important people in the building today were the fans,” said Fennelly, whose young team knocked off a top-25 foe twice in a single week for the first time since 2010. “I told the players before the game we wanted to do two things. Number one, make sure the people walked out of here saying it was worth coming. And number two, the people that couldn’t make it would say, ‘Dang. I wish I would have been there for that one.’ I think we did both.”

 ISU (12-4, 5-0 Big 12) accomplished those ambitious twin goals despite falling behind, 24-11, at the end of the first quarter. The Bears (14-2, 3-2) banked in a 55-footer to beat the buzzer and after 10 minutes, the Cyclones faced a double-digit hole for the second consecutive game — and just like against No. 24 West Virginia, they calmly surged back for the win.

 “(Fennelly’s) message? Let’s just say it was to wake up,” said freshman center Audi Crooks, who scored 23 points in 26 minutes while battling late foul trouble. “In the huddles and in the locker room, he really emphasized how important the fans were tonight. They found a way to get here. They found a way to cheer. I mean, they were the difference in this game.”

 So was Crooks, whom Baylor head coach Nikki Collen said her team had no answer for. So was senior transfer guard Hannah Belanger, whom Collen deemed the game’s “difference maker.”

 “She’s the one we thought we could guard and didn’t guard well enough,” Collen said. 

 Belanger finished with 15 points on 5 of 8 shooting — including a 3-for-4 mark from 3-point range.

 “Coach (Fennelly) always preaches be ready when you’re opportunity is up,” Belanger said.

ISU used a 10-2 run in the second quarter to trim Baylor’s edge to three points, at 28-25, but the Bears closed out the first half with a 7-2 splurge to lead 37-29 at the break.

 The Cyclones committed 10 turnovers in the first quarter, but lost just 11 in the ensuing 30 minutes, and took their first lead, at 61-59, on a Crooks layup with 3:17 left. Baylor inched back ahead, 64-63, with 31 seconds left, but another Crooks layup and a pair of Belanger free throws essentially sealed ISU’s fifth-straight triumph.

 “Hannah Belanger was phenomenal tonight,” Fennelly said. “So (the team’s) an interesting mix. And our team — we said from the beginning, this team is not going to be aesthetically, probably, fun to watch. But they’re gonna be fun to watch because they’re gonna play their you-know-whats off, and that’s kind of been what they’re doing.”

 Freshman forward Addy Brown scored just two points in the first half, but finished with nine points, 11 rebounds, five assists and a career-high six steals. She narrowly missed recording her eighth double-double of the season, but impacted the outcome in multiple ways, as usual.

 “I’ve always said the great players that I’ve ever coached are always a play ahead,” Fennelly said. “And you don’t see that a lot in the women’s game. Addy Brown’s a play ahead. Sometimes two plays ahead, which creates another issue, but she just is not afraid of the moment. Loves to play. Loves to compete.”

 So does Fennelly.. Hence his exuberant display once those two pregame goals were fully met and his freshmen-filled team celebrated at midcourt. As he bounded off the floor, he looked like a kid again.

 “It’s one of those things (where) I’ve been blessed to be here a long time,” an emotional Fennelly said. “And the way these people have embraced me, my family, our players — it just doesn’t happen anywhere. I know it does some places, but not when it’s (well) below zero outside. It just doesn’t. Like I said, I’ve been here a long time and it’s like, ‘Oh, you should expect it.’ But I don’t and I don’t take it for granted, I promise you.”