March 10, 2024 

Introducing Emily Ryan: Iowa State point guard, pride of the program

'If you Google ‘point guard,’ or whatever, that’s her picture. That's who she is'

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Fighting back tears at the podium, Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly attempted to put into words what senior guard Emily Ryan means to the Cyclones. 

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And whew, Saturday was a challenging place to start. 

Ryan, who finished with a double-double in Iowa State’s 67-62 victory against Baylor, knocked down six crucial free throws in the final 1:28 to secure a spot in the semifinals on Monday afternoon. She finished the game a perfect 8-for-8 from the line. 

Teammates Addy Brown and Audi Crooks, both members of the Cyclones’ “fab five” freshmen, lauded her poise in those final minutes.

“I knew she was going to make them because that’s what she does,” Brown said. “She steps up and makes big plays for this team.”

“Sometimes in the heat of the moment us youngins can get a little fired up,” Crooks quipped.” She calms us down and keeps us cool.”

Her 10 assists also broke a program record. And, for good measure, three rebounds pushed her over the 500-mark for her career.

“We’ve had a lot of great point guards that have played at Iowa State, and for her to do it says a lot about her, says a lot about the people she has played with,” Fennelly said after the game. “Emily will never probably have her jersey retired. She won’t be viewed in some regards like some of the All-American players we’ve had, but there is no one that I’ve ever coached that loves her teammates, loves her school, loves her coaches more than her. It’s been an honor for me to coach her.”

‘Unselfish to a fault’

His first answer was confident: “First day.”

Then, after a pause, he said it was probably somewhere along the recruiting trail that coach Fennelly realized he had found a program-changing player.

“I’d probably say it was before the first day of practice, and we recruited her I mean, it was like unselfish to a fault,” Fennelly said. “If you Google ‘point guard,’ or whatever, that’s her picture. That’s who she is.”

As a freshman, Ryan recorded 164 assists for an average of 5.86 across 28 games. The following year, she recorded a career-high 249 assists to set the program’s single-season record. The mark also ranked fourth in Big 12 history, and if you’re keeping track, was good for an average of 7.11 assists per game. 

She added 204 in her junior year and now has 129 entering the Big 12 semifinals. That’s 746 for her career. 

“She just sees the game,” Fennelly told the media after practice on Sunday. “There’s a lot of great women’s players. I don’t think there’s a lot of great women’s players that see two, three plays ahead and Emily Ryan does and she wants to pass.”

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.

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Avoiding the spotlight

Ryan broke the record with 41 seconds on the clock with the Cyclones trailing the Bears. She’s already hit the first two of her six aforementioned free throws, but the star in this moment was Crooks who battled into the lane for a contested layup. 

It was the final time the lead changed on Saturday, and it was Iowa State’s final field goal. In all regards, a more subtle moment for Ryan than the final four flawless free throws. 

“I didn’t realize I was close to it,” Ryan admitted. “Someone just said ‘congrats’ and I’m like ‘thank you.” I’m thinking it was the team.”

A fitting reaction for the senior leader who continued to credit her teammates, now fully aware of the record.

“The most important part of yesterday is that we won the game and obviously, you don’t want to take any attention away from that,” Ryan said. 

Carving her name in history

Ryan had already secured her place among the program’s top assists leaders with two of the Cyclone’s best individual seasons. Her 617 career assists entering the 2023-24 season ranked fourth, behind Nikki Moody (245) and Lyndsey Medders (719).

Prodded for an answer, she did oblige, but pretty quickly turned that answer to her teammates again.

“It is a huge honor just to be able to be mentioned in the same conversation as some of the all-time greats that have played at Iowa State,” Ryan said. “Honestly, it’s more so a credit to the teammates I’ve had, the talent that’s been around me and the position that coaches put me in to be successful.”

And she’s had quite the run of teammates including Ashley Joens, who was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury in 2023, to the “freshman five” today. Joens left Iowa State as the program’s all-time leading scorer with 3,060 points, leader in rebounds with 1,391, and also holds the records for made 3-pointers, career field goal attempts and made free throws. She was a four-time unanimous All-Big 12 First Team selection and the 2022-23 Big 12 Player of the Year. 

The Iowa State freshmen, who made up the nation’s No. 13 class in 2023, contributed the highest percentage of team points (63%), rebounds (62%) and minutes (57%) across all Power 5 programs in the regular season. Contributions which were desperately needed after the Cyclones lost 77% of their scoring and 67% of their rebounding from a season ago. 

Crooks has been one of the biggest successful additions, leading the team with 18.3 points per game as they battled to fourth place in the league standings. Brown averaged 13.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game in the regular season.

“They’ve had a lot of big moments this year and they just continue to step up and do what they need to do and trust the process,” Ryan said. “It’s not always pretty, but they’re always showing up the next day ready to work and ready to get better.

Iowa State also added three transfers ahead of the 2023-24 season: Hannah Belanger from Truman State, Isnelle Natabou from Sacramento State and Alisa Williams who won an NCAA title with Louisiana State in 2023. Williams had to redshirt. 

“Our team is balanced between the young guys that – let’s just keep playing, and Emily Ryan who keeps everyone organized,” Fennelly said, reflecting on those final minutes of Saturday’s chaotic victory. “ There was no panic by the young ones and Emily is always talking, ‘we’re fine, we’re fine, next one.’”

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All eyes on the semis

That “next one” is a rematch with Big 12 regular season champion Oklahoma with a spot in the conference tournament finals on the line. Kansas State will face Texas in the later game.

Iowa State only faced Oklahoma once this season since the Big 12 switched to an unbalanced schedule with the addition of BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF in 2023-24 They lost that game at home 86-72.

“We learned the intensity that we need to play and energy we need to bring and how fast the game was actually going to be,” Ryan said. “We’re just gonna have to show up and play really well.”

Oklahoma advanced with a 69-53 victory against TCU in the quarterfinals. The Sooners held the Horned Frogs to a 28.6% shooting percentage in the matchup and outscored them 30-14 in the paint. They are led by Skylar Vann who split the league’s co-player of the year honors with Madison Booker of Texas. The Sooners also have the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year in Payton Verhulst and Coach of the Year in Jennie Barancyzk.

“That’s what this tournament is about,” Fennelly said. “You go from one ranked team to another. It’ll be a tremendous challenge, but our kids are excited about the chance.”

Iowa State and Oklahoma will tip off at 1:30 p.m. CT, followed by the other semifinal at 4 p.m.. The Big 12 Championship, which the Cyclones won last year, will be decided Tuesday night at 8 p.m.

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Written by Kathleen Gier

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