KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Iowa State’s run at a conferenc championship fell short after a 81-72 loss in overtime in the Big 12 Tournament semifinal to Texas, dropping to 0-3 against the Longhorns this season.
However, there was plenty to be encouraged about as the conversation flips to the NCAA Tournament.
The team fought from the opening tip to the final buzzer and cleaned up plenty of things that made the first two losses to Texas so lopsided.
Responding to the physical style of play and regaining form shooting-wise helped make this one a 45-minute thriller for the Cyclones, and they will need to build off of those adjustments as the potential for similar matchups comes with the NCAA Tournament beginning next week.
In the two previous meetings against Texas during the regular season, Iowa State was simply outmatched in terms of physicality.
Losing both games by a combined 43 points, it was hard to know if the Cyclones would come out with a different approach that could match the Longhorns’ style of play Saturday.
But the lesson was learned.
Down 13-5 in the first quarter, things could’ve gotten out of hand in the same way that they did in January and February. Instead, the Cyclones clawed back and turned most of the remainder of the 45 minutes into a back-and-forth battle.
Playing physical, hard-nosed defense. Taking contact and finishing at the rim. Only getting out-rebounded by one and having two less points-in-the-paint. These are things that simply didn’t happen in both of the previous meetings.
“I think anytime you play Texas it’s gonna be a physical game,” Ashley Joens said following her 33-point, 13 rebound performance. “You just have to prepare for it and you have to be aggressive as well and just really battle.”
Things slipped away in overtime, but the difference was clear. For a team that has looked like the last thing they should want is a physical matchup in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday’s loss may be the beginning of getting over the hump.
The team was well aware of its shortcomings, too. This was a concerted effort to flip the script against the Texases and Baylors of the world, and the Cyclones are happy with where they’re at in that regard.
“I think we had to change our mentality, and I think we did a good job of that,” Lexi Donarski said. “We just came in more ready to play today, and more ready to put up a fight.”
Strong shooting returns
The other big aspect that contributed to Iowa State’s shortcomings against Texas this year was cold shooting.
Second in the country in three-point percentage at just under 39 percent this season, the Cyclones had only shot 9-28 from beyond the arc against the Longhorns this season. They were also just 29-85 from the floor, so the inside game wasn’t making up for the lack of three-point prowess.
Fennelly discussed postgame how he believes that freedom of movement doesn’t exist in women’s basketball. It gets worse in the postseason.
That physicality around the perimeter had been a big part of the cold shooting from Iowa State, but the team was also just missing shots.
On Saturday, that changed.
Shooting 45 percent from the floor and, most notably, 52 percent from three on 11-21 shooting, Iowa State found its stroke against a team that it had yet to put on its typical shooting performance against.
The team also set a new Big 12 record, passing Kansas State’s mark of 325 three-point makes in a single season that was set in the 2012-13 season.
Unfortunately for the Cyclones, Texas was 10-16 from three. However, the point remains that a more confident and well-adjusted team fixed something that had plagued them twice already this season.
“We got the ball in the lane for the most part, our decision-making was good, we made the shots that we needed to make,” Iowa State Head Coach Bill Fennelly said. “We tried hard to get to free-throw line and we couldn’t do that, but we shot it really well. That’s something we haven’t done against Texas in the past.”
Time for the NCAA Tournament
Iowa State will not be competing for a Big 12 Championship on Sunday, but its work isn’t finished.
Currently projected to be a 2-seed by Charlie Creme, ESPN’s women’s basketball bracketologist, the Cyclones would be hosting their first two games (provided they win the first) of the NCAA Tournament at Hilton Coliseum.
The team will know its status for sure sometime after 7 p.m. on Sunday, when the 2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Selection Show airs on ESPN.
“I guess I would say I couldn’t be more excited to hear what happens Sunday,” Fennelly said before getting emotional. “This team has been beyond a joy for me. At this point in my career, you don’t get that very often. The good news is, I’m heartbroken we don’t get to play tomorrow, but we’re gonna play again. I would not wanna be around any other people than these guys.”
One win away from tying the program record for wins in a single season at 27, one tournament ends and another begins for Iowa State.
With the amount of talent and history that the team has attached to it this season, the record for program wins is within reach, as well as a deep run in March.
Fennelly and his players have talked about the goal of winning a Big 12 Championship this year. That has been dashed, but the possibility of winning an NCAA Championship is still intact.
And in terms of the “why” for how that kind of run is possible, the man who’s led so many different teams in nearly 30 years of leading the program had the answer.
“It’s just the way that they believe and bought into what Iowa State is about, and the way they show up every day,” Fennelly said. “How much they care about the jersey. We don’t have names on the back of our jerseys, and we’re not gonna. That’s not what we’re about.”
“We’re about being connected, representing our fans and representing our school.”