By: Cael Sleezer
This journalist NEVER skips classes. Ever. But there is always an exception to the rule when the 12th ranked women’s basketball team in the country plays a morning game down the street from where you live.
Tears of joy came to my eyes as I walked into the majesty of Hilton Coliseum. To see it filled with passionate fans (most of which were kids from local grade schools on what may have been the best field trip ever) after all of the hardships of the pandemic truly brought joy and hope to my soul. My first game in Hilton in almost four years is one I will not soon forget.
The morning of Nov. 9th, 2021 could have possibly been the first chapter in a storybook season for Bill Fennelly and the Iowa State Women’s basketball team. With Kim Mulkey’s sudden departure from Baylor leaving an open door for a new queen atop the Big 12, Iowa State is at the heel of the throne, tied for second in the Big 12 Preseason Poll with 25th ranked Texas. With returning players in the Joens sisters, Lexi Donarski, and Emily Ryan, along with promising new faces headlined by Nyamer Diew, Denae Fritz, and Izzi Zingaro, this Iowa State squad is in a position to be a top contender not just in the Big 12, but all of college basketball.
A big question mark entering Opening Day was the health of ISU star Ashley Joens. Joens, who averaged a school-record 23.4 PPG last season, injured her ankle in an exhibition game against Wisconsin River-Falls just five days earlier and had virtually no practice time leading up to the Nebraska-Omaha matchup. It was a sigh of relief to see her name called last in the starting lineup including Morgan Kane, Denae Fritz, Emily Ryan, and reigning Big 12 Freshman of the year Lexi Donarski.
The Cyclones stumbled out of the gate with 10% shooting from the field after scoring their first basket, including a dismal 0-8 mark from 3-point range. Both sides struggled to get a bucket for the first ninety seconds, but Nebraska-Omaha struck first with a bucket from Elena Pilakouta to make it 2-0. Almost another two minutes went by before Nyamer Diew laid in the first points for the Cyclones, tying the game at 2.
Both sides went back and forth inside the paint with jumpers and layups for the rest of the first quarter, leaving Nebraska-Omaha on top 12-11 after 10 minutes of action.
Fifteen seconds into the second quarter, Emily Ryan put in a layup to make it 13-12 Cyclones. This would be the final lead change of the game. Lexi Donarski followed up with a 3-pointer to make it 16-12, and then it all went uphill from there. Aubrey Joens had a 3-pointer of her own in the quarter, and big sister Ashley followed up with a 2-2 trip to the free-throw line and a three-pointer of her own. The Cyclones went on a 15-6 run in the second quarter and led 26-18 at halftime.
Mariah Murdie was the bright spot for the Mavericks at the half, leading the team with 8 points on a perfect 4-4 clip from the field. Iowa State had a dismal 30% mark from the field at halftime, highlighted by a 4-20 performance from range. Ashley Joens led the Cyclones scoring at halftime with 7 points, but only shot 1-8 from the field.
The big difference-maker? Turnovers. Thirteen of them for Nebraska-Omaha at halftime. The Cyclone defense held strong all game, and it helped that the Mavericks missed both of their 3-point shots attempted in the first half.
The second half started off slow for the Cyclones, as Mariah Murdie had a block on an Ashley Joens jumper and Izzy Zingaro went 1-2 on a trip to the charity stripe. Both sides then exchanged buckets for several minutes until a TV timeout with 4:38 left in the third quarter, with a 34-24 advantage for Iowa State.
Emily Ryan dominated out of the timeout for ISU, as she buried both free throws when play resumed and had multiple steal-score plays, one of which resulted in an and-one. Sprinkle in a 3-pointer from Donarski and a free-throw made from Nyamer Diew, and the Cyclones finished the 3rd quarter on an 11-3 run and ran up the score to 45-27.
The home dominance continued into the final quarter as ISU out-shot the Mavericks from 3-point range 9-3 in the first two and a half minutes. The Nebraska-Omaha 3-pointer made by Sam Mitchell was their first one of the game. The only other 3-pointer made for the Mavericks would come from Katie Kiteges a few minutes later.
The remaining highlights of the game for the Cyclones consisted of a Lexi Donarski 3-pointer and putback scores from Maggie Vick and Izzi Zingaro. The Mavericks highlights consisted of the aforementioned 3-pointer and a 5-6 clip from the free-throw line. The final score read 65-38 in favor of the Cyclones.
Lexi Donarski was the bright spot offensively for Iowa State, as she posted an impressive 6-12 mark from 3-point range and finished with 18-5-2. Ashley Joens showed improvement from her first-half struggles and shot 3-8 from the field in the second half and finished with a solid 15-8-2 stat line.
Emily Ryan flirted with a double-double as she posted nine points and nine steals, along with three blocks. Nebraska-Omaha finished with 22 turnovers thanks in large part to Ryan’s defensive aggressiveness. Izzi Zingaro was also a force on the boards, posting seven points and seven rebounds.
The lone bright spot for the Mavericks was Mariah Murdie, as she posted fifteen points, eight rebounds, and four blocks. Elena Pilakouta posted an adequate stat line of 8-2-1 with a 40% mark from the field.
Despite a decisive victory for the Cyclones, there is room for improvement. For much of the first half, Iowa State shot an excessive amount of 3-pointers and ended up with a 25.6% clip from distance for the game. 39-64 of ISU shots were taken from beyond the arc, and the offense struggled to get inside the paint for a majority of the game. However, some of this was improved by halftime coaching adjustments, and inside scoring will almost certainly be a priority for Coach Fennelly going forward.
It would be naive to assume that Ashley Joens’ ankle didn’t contribute to her 25% shooting day. Joens spent a lot of time rehabbing her injury in the pool to the point where Fennelly quipped, “She could probably be on the swim team with how much time she’s spent in the pool already.” However, if she can drop fifteen points and gather eight rebounds on a bad ankle… imagine what she could do at full strength.
Iowa State’s next game is on Monday against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits up north, available to watch on ESPN+.