January 16, 2021 

Breaking down big shifts in the Big 12; previewing Baylor-Iowa State

West Virginia and Iowa State each pick up a big win

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West Virginia’s Kysre Gondrezick drives past Texas guard Celeste Taylor in the team’s 92-58 win. (Photo: Ben Powell)

West Virginia upsets Texas in a sound fashion

In by far the biggest upset of the Big 12 season, West Virginia stomped a full-strength top-25 Texas team on Saturday, 92-58.

It was a slow start for Texas in a game that got progressively worse. By the first quarter, Longhorns center Charli Collier had picked up three fouls. After 21 minutes on the court, she fouled out, finishing with just 5 points.

If it wasn’t apparent before, the Longhorns learned that they need to keep Collier on the floor to succeed in conference play. When she’s out, the team loses more than just her 23.4 points and 10.7 rebounds.

Even in contests where she doesn’t fill up the stat sheet, Collier provides value because of her gravity around the rim, often drawing at least two defenders even if she’s off the ball. She’s at the center of Texas’s offense, and her presence helps other players thrive.

Take last week’s win over Iowa State. Is the other team swarming Collier? Great, the outside shooters are open. Are they leaving her open down low? Perfect, that’s an easy two points at the rim. Need someone to set a hard screen? Collier is your choice.

Head coach Vic Schaefer has transformed this roster — the Longhorns have three players averaging at least 8 more points per game than last season, which is more than the rest of the conference combined.

This West Virginia team, meanwhile, showed us its ceiling. This was more than the Mountaineers’ most complete performance of the season — it might be the best game any Big 12 team has had in conference play thus far. West Virginia outmatched Texas in nearly every aspect of the game — outside shooting, inside scoring, rebounding, ball-control, and especially playmaking. The Mountaineers moved the ball extremely well, with a season-high 23 assists.

Esmery Martinez has been a revelation for West Virginia, scoring 13.9 points per game after averaging just 5.4 a season prior. She’s also grabbing 13.5 rebounds per game, which ranks first in the Big 12 and is third nationally. Her ascent gives the Mountaineers a shot against the conference’s post-heavy offenses.

In more important news, the Mountaineers’ leading scorer, Kysre Gondrezick, was playing this game just two days after the passing of her father, Grant Gondrezick. Gondrezick dropped 24 points and seven assists in the win.

“You’ve got to tip your hat to that kid,” Schaefer said. “I admire her for her courage today because that was a courageous thing that she did. I’m sure her daddy is awfully proud of her.” 

More than anything, though, we send our best wishes to her and her family.

Iowa State’s offensive firepower on display against Oklahoma State

After I spent the week marveling at this Oklahoma State team, the Cowgirls fell short of a statement win, falling 90-80 to the Iowa State Cyclones. Iowa State didn’t have an answer for Cowgirls big Natasha Mack, who put up a career-high 34 points on 16-23 shooting while adding 13 rebounds and five assists. We haven’t seen this type of offensive performance from Mack, but the Cowgirls could surely use it.

But on Wednesday, Oklahoma State was no better suited to stop Ashley Joens, who finished with 30 points and 15 rebounds. It was her first 30-point game (I know, high bar, so we’re splitting hairs here) since Dec. 9, after she had four straight 30+ performances in early December. Joens’s will to win is always apparent, and she was repeatedly unafraid to contest the larger Mack at the rim. She also collected five offensive rebounds, the second such time she’s done so this season.

This was a matchup of alternate identities: the Cowgirls play big and inside, while the Cyclones go small and prefer the perimeter. In a game where Iowa State’s leading forward, Kristin Scott, was out with a head injury, the Cyclones leaned into their small-ball identity and kept everyone not-named Natasha Mack at bay. Ultimately, the Cyclones won with the ability to control the game script, which Cowgirls head coach Jim Littell acknowledged as much of in his postgame interview.

“I don’t like getting in games like that, where it’s 90-to-80 games,” Littell said. “That isn’t the brand of our program but hopefully we’ll learn from it.”

Iowa State doesn’t rely on its interior scoring the way other Big 12 teams do, which meant they could exploit the non-Mack defenders. Both teams matched up evenly early, but by halftime, Iowa State had taken the lead while shooting 7-18 from 3-point range (the Cowgirls were 1-3). Iowa State has its valuable freshmen weapons at full force on the perimeter, with Emily Ryan putting on a playmaking clinic night-in and night-out, and Lexi Donarski emerging as the most complete freshman scorer in the conference.

The return of Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw has been Iowa State’s trojan horse at the start of conference play, and she’s hit 11 of her first 19 3-point attempts on the season. Despite playing just 16.6 minutes per game in her five contests, she’s averaging 9.6 points for the team.

Each team has a tough schedule up ahead: Iowa State takes on Baylor for the first time on Saturday, while the Cowgirls face West Virginia, Baylor, and Texas in the coming weeks. We’ll learn plenty from these games.

Baylor – Iowa State preview

Both Baylor and Iowa State come into Saturday’s game with significant question marks. Baylor has played just one game since Dec. 19 and hasn’t seen the court since its Jan. 2 win against TCU. The Cyclones, meanwhile, may not have a legitimate interior defender on its roster, especially if Scott isn’t healthy.

That said, Iowa State has fashioned itself into a team with a very high ceiling, and the randomness of a rusty Baylor squad could swing the odds in the Cyclones’ favor. If Scott isn’t back up front to help out on NaLyssa Smith, Queen Egbo, and Hannah Gusters, though, this game could be over before it even begins.

Saturday’s contest features a matchup of the conference’s best perimeter offensive weapon (Joens) against the best defensive player in the nation in Baylor’s DiDi Richards. It’ll be yet another game where Iowa State has to control the pace of the game in order to stand a chance.

Let’s be clear here: Baylor enters as a heavy favorite to win this game. But the Cyclones are the only Big 12 opponent to upset Baylor in the past five seasons. Both teams will come into the game yearning for a win. It should be a fun watch.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

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

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