March 25, 2021 

Iowa State: What it’s like on the other side of an instant classic

Plus Baylor and Texas move on to the Sweet 16

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SAN ANTONIO, TX – MARCH 24: Texas A&M University takes on Iowa State University during the second round of the 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos)

‘That room will never be duplicated again’

This game was an instant classic — the type you never want to be on the other side of.

But that’s exactly where Iowa State found itself 44 minutes and 59 seconds into the contest: standing frozen as they watched Jordan Nixon’s runner drop through the rim.

All season long, Iowa State found itself in nailbiters against ranked teams that sported more talent, more prestige and more experience. That didn’t change on Sunday. What did change was the result: an early exit before the Sweet 16 on an 84-82, buzzer-beating, bracket-breaking overtime loss against second-seeded Texas A&M.

I’m dying that I don’t get to coach this team tomorrow. Because this team is special. And it’s killing me that I don’t get to — but I got to. And I’ll remember that forever. — Iowa State head coach Bill Fennelly

The Cyclones always had a shot to go far this season, and for the first 39 minutes of this contest, it looked like they would pull through against a Texas A&M squad that did not have the offensive fireworks to match them. Indeed, Iowa State came ready to shoot, sinking 16 of its 30 outside shots, the 13th time this season that they’ve hit at least 10 3-pointers.

But even as they let it fly from downtown, turnovers and 50/50 balls sunk this team down the stretch.

“I think our kids probably felt like there were six defenders, maybe seven of them out there, they were so aggressive,” Fennelly said. “It was certainly a game with two completely different styles of play. It’s what makes this tournament so great, but what you saw tonight for those who didn’t see us all year, that’s kind of the way we play.”

Iowa State started this game hot and hungry, ready again for the Ashley Joens show. Joens — who has certified herself as one of the most dynamic scorers in college basketball this season — did everything she could in this contest, pouring in 32 points and grabbing 18 rebounds against a physical Texas A&M team that wanted to see anyone but her touch the ball. Joens came through without help from Kristin Scott, Iowa State’s third-leading scorer, who was hobbled throughout the game and played just 12 minutes.

“Anyone who has watched Ashley Joens play in this tournament who doesn’t think she’s one of the best players in the country, they need to look at other sports,” Fennelly said. “The weight of this team is on her back every single night, and she just keeps playing. She’s amazing. Absolutely amazing.”

Though the Cyclones held a 35-30 lead at the half and led by as many as 12 toward the end of the third quarter, the Aggies hung around just long enough to make a run.

Controversial calls and reviews extended this game down the stretch. With several seconds left in regulation, it appeared as if the Aggies fouled Joens on the way to the hoop, and that the ball had last touched Texas A&M. Only the former was true — it remained Iowa State ball, but no foul on the play. With that call went the opportunity to ice the game at the free-throw line, and ultimately, the chance to end the game in regulation.

Fennelly wouldn’t comment on the officiating, still raw after the game. But even after the loss, he never wavered in his praise for this roster.

“I told our team in the locker room that this could have been a year they looked at, you know, maybe could have been the worst year for a lot of reasons,” Fennelly said. “COVID, injuries, freshmen, a lot of things. But this team persevered … and it turned out to be the best year, one of the best years ever. And I’m very, very proud.”

It’s hard for the Iowa State faithful to see Joens and the Cyclones go down like this, but a team that starts three freshmen usually doesn’t make it this far as is. The Cyclones can take solace in the conference’s strongest freshman class, as well as another year with Joens as their leader. She certainly knows there is more in store for this roster.

“You have tough losses, seasons end, it happens every year,” Joens said. “You just have to learn from what happened this season, in this game and in the previous games, and try and improve on it in the offseason. So just telling [the freshmen] to keep their head up and keep working, stay in the gym and getting better. I think with this group of freshmen that we have right now, that won’t be a problem.”

“I told them, if this is the worst day of your life you’re gonna die a lucky person,” Fennelly said. “There’s people who’ve lost their jobs. There’s people that lost businesses; there’s people that lost loved ones. We lost a game.”

It isn’t a lost season — the highs were still high. This Iowa State squad was the first in decades to beat Baylor in Waco. They faced a brief non-conference schedule packed with tournament teams in South Carolina, Iowa and South Dakota State, and regularly matched up against the nation’s top bigs (who all seemed to play in the Big 12) without an overpowering inside force of their own.

Iowa State’s offense became one of the most exciting in the country, running and gunning with Joens and three freshmen at the center of it all. So yes, this will sting, and this team had its imperfections. It will be back.

Texas upsets UCLA, heads to Sweet 16

Texas joined Baylor as the second and final Big 12 squad to make it to the Sweet 16, upsetting UCLA 71-62 on the back of gutsy performances from the guard trio of Celeste Taylor, Kyra Lambert and Joanne Allen-Taylor. Though Charli Collier scored just five points in the contest — by far her fewest in a win this season — her teammates hit enough shots to make up for it.

“We’re not one person,” head coach Vic Schaefer said. “Charli has carried us a lot this year. There were nights we couldn’t throw it in the ocean if we were standing on the beach at high tide. To see us go out and do what we did, score 71 points and do it the way we did, it is the sign of development of the team.”

“I’ve been a part of some really special wins in 36 years of coaching,” he added. “And today’s win, seeing how hard those kids played today, the humility that they played with, it’s just why you do what you do as a coach.” 

The Longhorns played a dominant first half, holding a UCLA offense that averaged 71.4 points per game to just 14 in the first half. Though the Bruins made a run in the second half, it was all for naught as they watched the Longhorns advance.

Audrey Warren, who has a storied history with concussions, took a scary hit to the jaw in the first half but ultimately returned to play in the third and final frames. She is expected to play Sunday when Texas faces a red-hot Maryland team in the Sweet 16.

San Antonio, TX – MARCH 23: BAYLOR VS VIRGINIA TECH during the Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Rudy Gonzalez/NCAA Photos)

Baylor moves on, West Virginia and Oklahoma State fall

After about a month into the season, it was pretty clear there were three tiers in the Big 12. There were the bottom five squads (Kansas, Kansas State, TCU, Texas Tech and sort-of Oklahoma); the Sweet 16 hopefuls in West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Texas and Iowa State; and then Baylor.

  • For the 12th consecutive year, Baylor advanced to the Sweet 16, doing so in a 90-48 thrashing of seventh-seeded Virginia Tech. The Lady Bears will square off against Michigan, a six seed, on Saturday afternoon as the favorite to play the winner of UConn-Iowa. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a team that looks like more of a title favorite than Baylor right now.

  • Oklahoma State fell 73-62 to top-seeded Stanford in the Round of 32, an impressive game for the Cowgirls that marked the lowest margin of victory for the Cardinal in its last eight games. It doesn’t make the loss any easier for the Cowgirls to swallow, but it’s important because…

  • …one could argue that Oklahoma State never should’ve played this game. The Cowgirls came in as an 8 seed despite being just three NET rankings lower than West Virginia, who came in as a 4 in the same conference. Natasha Mack, who has a decent shot at the National Defensive Player of the Year award and a top-5 spot in the WNBA Draft, put on a Herculean effort for this program. The rest of the roster showed up as well. The talent gulf between them and Stanford was just too much.

  • West Virginia collapsed with a 73-52 loss against fifth-seeded Georgia Tech in the Round of 32, with the halfcourt offense stalling for much of the game. The Mountaineers had little in the way of offense from Kysre Gondrezick, who scored just three points facing endless blitzes from the Yellow Jackets defense.

  • Texas Tech’s second-leading scorer Lexi Gordon is entering the transfer portal, as first reported by KCBD Sports’ Pete Christy. Gordon averaged 15.8 points for the Raiders this season and will explore the options available at other schools.

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Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream and Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

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