March 23, 2024 

Iowa State’s Audi Crooks makes grand NCAA Tournament debut with 40-point gem

Crooks led the way as the Cyclones came back from down 20 to beat Maryland.

STANFORD, Calif. — America, we’d like to introduce you to Iowa State’s Audi Crooks.

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On the namecheck of the country’s top freshmen – JuJu Watkins and Hannah Hidalgo and MiLaysia Fulwiley – Audi’s hasn’t come up that much. But that’s about to change.

The Algona, Iowa native, the player that Cyclones’ coach Bill Fennelly followed over and over again to her favorite Mexican restaurant — even though he doesn’t even like Mexican food — to recruit her to his program, made herself well known Friday night at Stanford with a career-defining performance in her NCAA Tournament debut.

Crooks finished with a career-high 40 points, on 18-of-20 shooting from the floor, and 12 rebounds in 34 minutes on the floor as a young Iowa State team overcame a 20-point first-half deficit to defeat 10th seeded Maryland 93-86 and earn a second-round date with Stanford on the Cardinal’s home floor.

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Crooks’ performance is tied for the second-most in an NCAA Tournament debut and the most by a Big 12 player in the NCAA Tournament since Brittney Griner back in 2012. Her 90% shooting from the field was also an NCAA Tournament record.

As Crooks made her way to the ESPN broadcast table for a postgame interview, teammate Nyamer Diew followed her there, saying “She had 40! She had 40! I need to let everyone know that she had 40!”

Everyone knew.

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Crooks, an Honorable Mention AP All-American, was the No. 57 recruit in the country when she decided to honor her late father, who passed away in 2021, and come to Iowa State. She is the anchor of a team that relies heavily on five freshmen, a team that “didn’t know what they didn’t know,” Fennelly said, when they went into halftime down 16 points. Maryland shot better than 60 percent from the floor in a 52-point first half.

But by out-scoring Maryland 57-34 in the second half, by scoring 50 points in the paint for the game and by hitting seven of their nine 3-pointers for the game in the final 20 minutes, the Cyclones pulled off the second-biggest comeback in the history of the women’s NCAA Tournament.

“At halftime, coach [Fennelly] kind of told us that what we do is up to us,” Crooks said. “He asked us if this is how we want to go out, and that what happens on the floor is our responsibility. It was a matter of pride just knowing that we weren’t playing out best.”

The comeback ran through Crooks, and her teammates’ ability to deliver the ball in exactly the right spot.
Senior point guard Emily Ryan finished the game with 18 points and 14 assists, the vast majority of those to Crooks, whose soft hands and perfect positioning are a recipe for success.

“I think that’s just a credit to the attention that Audi draws inside,” Ryan said. “When we throw it in there, she gets it every time and she finishes it so well, and when she gets rolling, they have to suck inside, and so the skip shots were open and the shooters were knocking them down the second half.“

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Fennelly said his team has worked on getting the ball to Crooks all season. He even drew on what her high school did as an example.

“Early in the year, we were not sure the best way to go about it. But I think what happens is, because of the positions she can get, Audi has amazing hands. So it’s like a wide receiver,” Fennelly said. “And we have multiple people that can make the passes. Obviously Emily does most of it. But Addy Brown has been really good. And when people spread the court on us.

“It’s been a learning curve because we have not had a true low-post player in our program for 25 years. And so it’s been something we’ve all had to learn, and Audi has been really patient with us.”

Iowa State’s Addy Brown reacts to her teammate Audi Crooks’ 40-point NCAA Tournament debut. (Video credit: The Next)

Getting Crooks to Iowa State was a labor of culinary dislike for Fennelly. Showing up at Cinco de Mayo Mexican Restaurant in Algona so that he could run into Crooks, who said her standard order was the Pollo Loco Bowl, with grilled chicken, rice and cheese. His was chicken soft tacos.

“The chips are good,” Fennelly said with a shrug.

“Oh, he hates Mexican food,” Crooks said.

The things a coach will do to land a game-changer.

Crooks is averaging more than 27 points a game in her last five games — four of those postseason games. Her only single-digit scoring effort of the season came in the season opener.

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Before the game, Crooks found herself in a moment alone. She closed her eyes, and took a breath. She said she was saying a short prayer and seeking some guidance from her father, who died when his daughter was 16 years old.

“I try to take a second to ground myself and tap into my spiritual side and just know that everything is going to be OK,” Crooks said, briefly wiping away tears. “My dad has got the best seat in the house.”

Crooks said she prides herself on being a cool, calm, collected person. She showed all of that in the most important 40 minutes of her basketball life so far.

“The most emotion you’ll see out of me is when we’re celebrating, or somebody makes a big shot; I’ll be going crazy in that case,” Crooks said. “It’s super important, and it’s not talked about enough, the body language in basketball that tells a lot about yourself, your team, your culture. And just to be able to control your emotions and fight through adversity, it’s not talked about enough and that’s just something that I value and that this team values and that everybody should value.”

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Maryland lost in the first round for the first time in 22 seasons under head coach Brenda Frese, a season marred with injuries coming to an abrupt end.

Frese called Crooks, who she also recruited, “one of a kind.”

“She’s so hard to guard,” Frese said. “We talked about playing behind, but I’m not sure what we were going to be able to do, especially with our lack of size and playing four perimeter players.

“They don’t play like a lot of freshmen in that lineup. They didn’t even flinch being down at halftime, and then coming out and executing on the offensive end.”

A second-round date with Stanford, which beat Norfolk State 79-50 in the nightcap at Maples Pavilion, will present Crooks with her biggest challenge of the season, facing off against the Cardinal’s tandem of Cameron Brink and Kiki Iriafen.

They will be the biggest posts that Crooks has faced all season, save for perhaps Texas. She will likely not be able to have her way with Stanford quite like she did against the Terrapins.

And the Cardinal won’t be underestimating anyone at this point. Losing a second-round game to Mississippi last season is a painful reminder and the fact that the Cyclones have already beaten six ranked teams this season makes them worthy of the Cardinal’s intense attention.

But then again, 40 points from a freshman raises some eyebrows, too.

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Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as and She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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