Archive for March, 2009

Believe it: Final Four within ISU’s reach

March 29, 2009

Ten years after Iowa State first crashed the party into women’s college basketball’s elite, the Cyclones are back, one win away from the Final Four. Wow.

Do they have one more great performance left in them?

If you thought Saturday’s incredible comeback against Michigan State from seven points down in the final 83 seconds was as good as it gets, winning Monday — in any fashion — would be epic.

It won’t come easy.

Standing in the way is last year’s national runner-up Stanford, an 84-66 winner over No. 3 seed Ohio State later Saturday night.

The second-seeded Cardinal enter Monday night’s Elite Eight game (8 p.m. Iowa time on ESPN) as decided favorites. Here’s why:

– Stanford routed ISU early on this season, winning 83-45 back on Nov. 29 at the Waikki Beach Marriott Classic in Honolulu. Freshmen reserves Whitney Williams and Ashley Arlen were the Cyclones’ leading scorers that day, if that tells you anything.

– The Cardinal has great athleticism and fantastic size, while ISU’s frontcourt is limping in, literally, with starting forward Nicky Wieben clearly not at full strength with her sprained left foot.

– The last team to beat top-ranked Connecticut, being talked about as the greatest team ever? Stanford last March in a national semifinal. 

– A majority of fans at Haas Pavilion will be on Stanford’s side, despite the arena being the home of Pac-10 rival California.

– ISU’s NCAA wins thus far have come agianst seeds numbered 13, 12 and 9. That’s not the Cyclones’ fault — they’ve beaten the opponent who’s been in front of them — but it’s a reason to believe they haven’t been pushed by a team as good or better.

If  the No. 4 seeded Cyclones are to improve on their 27-8 record and break the school record for victories — set during that 1998-99 Elite Eight team with Stacy Frese, Megan Taylor and the rest of the crew — they’ll have to be close to perfect.

It’s been almost four months since the teams first played, and they are certainly at different stages right now. Both obviously are playing at a high level right now.

Regardless of what happens, Iowa State has put together quite a run over the last two weeks.

Basketball fans in the state have jumped on the bandwagon as the last team standing.  

What a story it would be for the Cyclones to keep it going. The odds are against them and the women’s game doesn’t produce Cindarella teams like ISU very often, but, hey, isn’t March the month dreams come true?

How sweet…Fennelly lets his guard down

March 25, 2009

This one was special. Bill Fennelly didn’t have to say it.

His face told us so.

So did the emphatic fist pump as Iowa State was breaking free late from gritty No. 12 seed Ball State, and into its first Sweet 16 since 2001.

Fennelly, normally stoic and ultra composed, flashed a smile and a rare display of exuberance. And as those of us who’ve followed his Cyclones for the last several years can attest, his pearly whites don’t show themselves very often when there’s time still on the clock.

His beloved senior class — with four-year players Heather Ezell, Nicky Wieben and Amanda Nisleit — will play on. It is ISU’s fourth trip to the Sweet 16 in Fennelly’s 14 seasons as head coach. 

The man understands and appreciates the moment more than most coaches. He knows how difficult it is to break through to the Regional portion of the NCAA tournament.

This team, after two previous second-round exits, got what it deserved.

But ISU’s 71-57 win over the Cardinals did not come easy.

We all expected Tennessee to be waiting in the second round. It would have been easy for the No. 4 seeded Cyclones to let down, thinking the Fighting Lettermans were in over their heads in their first-ever trip to the NCAAs.

No way they can get up for another massive upset after embarrassing the defending champ Lady Vols, right?

ISU sucked it up, adjusted to how it was being defended, played tough defense of its own and hit free throws down the stretch.

“When we were in the huddle with about four minutes left, Coach Fennelly said that we’ve been up seven (points) five or six times and we’re either going to the Sweet 16 or we’re not,” said sophomore Kelsey Bolte, who had 16 points and hit 5 3-pointers. “I think we all put our foot down and played with a lot of aggression and passion and heart.”

ISU (26-8) plays No. 9 seed Michigan State Saturday night in Berkeley, Calif., one win shy of tying the school record for wins.

The contest tips off at 8 p.m. Iowa time.

The Spartans shocked top-seeded Duke Tuesday night, which surely didn’t upset ISU players and coaches once they learned of that little fact.

What a night. Fennelly should still be smiling.

Sweet or sour (16) for Cyclone women?

March 23, 2009

There’s good news and bad news Cyclone fans:

The good… Iowa State’s second-round NCAA tournament opponent is a No. 12 seed from the one-bid Mid-American Conference who notched its first-ever NCAA victory Sunday night. The Cyclones have been to the tournament 11 times in 14 years under Coach Bill Fennelly and won at least one game 10 of those trips.

The bad… That opponent — Ball State — bounced defending national champion Tennessee, a historic event no matter massive the rebuilding project is for Pat Summitt. The Lady Vols had never been beaten in the first or second rounds of the NCAAs.

Never. In the 28-year history of the event.

Ball State’s 71-55 win at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky., a few hours northwest of Rocky Top, was a shocker. Even BSU players couldn’t believe the lopsided final score.

“I would be lying to you if I told you I thought it would be a 16-point victory,” guard Kiley Jarrett said. “It is just unbelievable.”

The Cardinals (26-8 overall, 14-2 MAC) had just one win this season against the tournament field, against an Evansville team that made it in with a losing record and was beaten 80-45 by Texas A&M in the first round.

What they have now is confidence, and a lot of it.

The pressure is all on Iowa State (25-8) to live up to its No. 4 seed at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday night on ESPN2.

Beating Tennessee — who became the first defending champs to fall in their first game the following year — was Ball State’s biggest win in school history.

Can David Letterman U. do that one better?

I doubt it.

But Iowa State may not be in as good of a position as some think. They are favored to win and should be, though their opponents have a lot of momentum and nothing to lose.

That’s a dangerous combination.

Ezell taking it easy before NCAAs

March 17, 2009

Looking back on it, Bill Fennelly says he probably took a risk he shouldn’t have last weekend in playing injured guard Heather Ezell in Iowa State’s semifinal loss to Baylor at the Big 12 Tournament.

Ezell sat out the previous day’s game against Texas with an injured right hand/wrist, but talked the coach into letting her play against the Lady Bears.  

Injure it any further and her availability for the NCAA Tournament is in question. 

 

“What we did on Saturday was probably not smart,” Fennelly said. “She wanted to play, and she’s earned that right to make that decision.”

 

Fortunately, Ezell emerged unscathed and should be OK for Sunday’s first-round game against No. 13 seed East Tennessee State in Bowling Green, Ky. 

 

She did nothing but shoot during Monday’s abbreviated workout before the selection show. Ezell was seen wearing a brace earlier in the day, but said the injury is improved.

 

“It’s feeling pretty good. Hopefully it’ll be good to go this weekend,” she said after ISU learned of its No. 4 seed in the Berkeley Region.

 

Fennelly said his senior guard and leading scorer will take it easy over the next few days but wants Ezell to be go through a full practice by the time ISU leaves town.

 

“She needs to be able to practice legitimately on Friday,” Fennelly said. “She can’t go from last Saturday to Sunday and just walk out there and make shots for us. She has to get out there.”

 

The Cyclones (24-7) are a much different team without Ezell on the floor.

 

Her replacement last weekend, Denae Stuckey, is more valuable as a defensive presence and a player who provides energy and toughness off the bench.

 

Fennelly wants to be able to game plan using Ezell in her normal role. With her career over whenever ISU next loses, the gritty guard is going to play through whatever pain she’s feeling.

 

“I’d be surprised if by Friday she’s not ready to go full go,” Fennelly said. “She’ll be ready. She’s not missing this.”

Star-studded night at The Well

March 15, 2009

Some of the state’s elite basketball talent is on display tonight at the boys state tournament at Wells Fargo Arena.

Tops on the list is Ames 6-6 forward Harrison Barnes. The junior has his pick of schools to choose from. There are many in the building tonight — including Iowa State coach Greg McDermott — who are hoping he continues to call central Iowa home. No one’s holding their breath, espeically with North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Florida and others in the mix.

Iowa State did have a player who’ll wear cardinal and gold playing tonight in Norwalk’s Alex Dorr. The 6-7 forward was the team’s leading scorer (20.7 ppg) and rebounder. He’ll be a non-scholarship addition to the Cyclones. 

Of course, Linn-Mar’s Zach Bohannon is headed to Air Force.  

Sioux City Heelan big man Brennan Cougill will wear black and gold next year at the University of Iowa. The 6-9 forward closed out his career in style with 28 points — on 12 of 14 shooting — to go with 10 rebounds.

Heelan teammate Zach McCabe added 18 points and 7 rebounds. The junior is an impressive athlete, and appears as though he’ll play football in college instead of basketball. Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas and Notre Dame are all on his radar.

Ames forward James Kohler is another football guy playing basketball. He holds offers from Iowa, Iowa State and Stanford, with regional schools like Wisconsin, Kansas State, Minnesota and Nebraska also in the mix.

Teammate Jesse Pritchard will play basketball at Yale, though sports will be secondary to him no doubt.

And Doug McDermott, Greg’s kid, is fast becoming a Division I recruit with a breakout junior season. He’s averaging 14 points a game off the bench for Ames and has a field goal percentage of 70.9 percent.

A handful of coaches from Iowa State’s staff are here, as is Northern Iowa’s Ben Jacobson, who apparently isn’t sweating Selection Sunday too badly.

One and done, what now?

March 12, 2009

Iowa State’s men’s basketball season ended Wednesday night in Oklahoma City with a 81-67 loss to Oklahoma State at the Big 12 Tournament.

Few in Cyclone Nation were surprised or, quite frankly, disappointed.

Spring football practice begins March 24. The women’s basketball team is ranked in the top 20 and headed for another NCAA Tournament. ISU’s wrestling team qualified all 10 wrestlers for next week’s national championships. 

There are things to look forward to in Ames.

The Cyclones were playing out the string, building for a 2009-10 season that hopefully includes star forward Craig Brackins. 

The Cyclones finished 15-17 overall, Coach Greg McDermott’s third straight season missing out on postseason play, and were 4-12 in league play.

There’s work to do be done, quite obviously.

Athleticism, consistency, late-game execution — all need major upgrades. Pieces are there for McDermott, who returns everybody but seniors Alex Thompson, Sean Haluska and Bryan Petersen.

Fine people and solid players they are. Program-turning talents they are not.

Iowa State has reason to think next year will better.

Brackins has to realize he’d benefit by waiting another year to jump to the NBA, junior college transfer Marquis Gilstrap has to live up to the hype, Diante Garrett must be able to produce every game out and Chris Colvin has to be ready to play immediately.

Lucca Staiger and Jamie Vanderbeken proved they can be offensive weapons.

Marquette transfer Scott Christopherson should be a factor, judging by his work during practice while he sat out the season. 

Justin Hamilton needs to keep improving but has a nice upside.

ISU’s prospects for next year hinge on Brackins, who would be silly not to at least go through NBA workouts to see where teams are telling him he stacks up with the rest of the draft class.

He can still return if he doesn’t hire an agent.

That’s the postseason storyline we’ll all be following. In the meantime, enjoy the wrestling, Cyclone women’s hoops and spring football updates.

Iowa State’s scholarship breakdown for ’09-10, assuming there are no changes

Seniors: F Jamie Vanderbeken, G/F Marquis Gilstrap

Juniors: F Craig Brackins, G Diante Garrett, G Charles Boozer, G Lucca Staiger

Sophomores: G Justin Hamilton, G Wes Eikmeier, G Dominique Buckley, G Scott Christopherson, G Clinton Mann

Freshmen: F L.A. Pomlee, G Chris Colvin

“One more year, One more year”

March 8, 2009

Some Iowa State fans sitting in the student section chanted “one more year” as Cyclone players and coaches walked off the floor after their 78-76 victory over Texas Tech.

“Were they talking to me?” joked third-year coach Greg McDermott, who will have to reach the championship game of next week’s Big 12 Conference Touranment to achieve his first winning season at ISU.

The chants were intended for the ears of Craig Brackins, who could test the NBA waters and leave school with two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Saturday’s game may have been the final Hilton Coliseum appearance for more than seniors Bryan Petersen, Sean Haluska and Alex Thompson.

Brackins has some difficult decisions ahead.

“Every possession he plays someone (with the NBA) is watching, whether they are there in person or watching on DirecTV somewhere,” McDermott said. “That’s the reality that he’s had to deal with and we’ve had to deal with. We don’t talk about it a lot. I don’t think he wants to be distracted by it at this point in time, but it’s something at the end of the year that we are doing to have to deal with.”

Brackins finished a close second to Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin for the Big 12 scoring title in league games only, finishing the regular season at 20.1 points a game.

He’s 12 points shy of becoming the fifth player in school history to top 1,000 points in his first two seasons.

McDermott wants him and needs him to return to his team next season. But the coach can’t be selfish with this situation, and he knows it.

“I have a responsibility to Craig to advise him the best that I can,” McDermott said.

The Cyclones should be better next season with recruits Chris Colvin and Marquis Gilstrap. They’ll be better with Brackins, of course.

Start crossing your fingers Cyclone fans.

Senior Day double-dip for Cyclones

March 7, 2009

Some Senior Day notes as Iowa State’s men’s and women’s basketball teams play at Hilton Coliseum for the final time:

The men play Texas Tech at 12:45, followed by the women vs. Kansas at 7 p.m. Big crowds are expected for both contests. 

– Seniors Bryan Petersen, Alex Thompson and Sean Haluska each played only two seasons. Petersen and Haluska were junior college transfers (Kirkwood and Indian Hills) and Thompson escaped Coach Steve Alford’s grip at Iowa.

– Thompson is the only current player who was on ISU’s roster during Coach Greg McDermott’s first season. He sat out the year per NCAA transfer rules.

– A walk-on when he was recruited, Petersen has started all 62 games of his career.

– Haluska missed the first 26 3-point shots of his career before making one on Jan. 26 against Kansas State. He then hit 14 of his next 31 attempts, finishing the year on a 45.2 percent clip. 

– Amanda Nisleit started two of her first 57 games at ISU (both as a true freshman). Since then “Nis” has been in the starting lineup 57 of the last 63 games.

– Heather Ezell’s name is etched all over ISU’s all-time 3-point shooting charts. She has attempted the most (809), ranks second in makes (275) and holds the single-game and Hilton Coliseum record for made 3-pters (10). “Eze” has hit seven or more triples in a game six times during her career.

– And don’t forget last year’s Big 12 Tournament where Ezell hit a record 17 3-pointers, including seven and eight in consecutive days against Colorado and Kansas State, respectively.

– Nicky Wieben ranks 14th in ISU history with 1,168 points and far and away holds the all-time mark for blocked shots with 187.

– Jocelyn Anderson is sixth on that list with 91 blocks, 75 coming last season, a single-season record.

***I also should pay homage to legendary superfan/heckler Wild Bill Youngclas, who no longer will be a prominent figure at Cyclone women’s basketball games. Your energy will be missed. The bullhorn will not.***

The Big 12’s dance card

March 4, 2009

The old guard is back atop the Big 12 Conference standings and looking toward a postseason run.

Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri are the league’s Big Three teams and safely in the field of 65. I think we can all agree on that.

The next tier is where it gets tricky. Who else deserves bids?

This is a league where every year at least five teams and probably six should be playing past the conference tournament.

The way I see it, there’s five pretty solid locks, especially after Oklahoma State’s uber-important victory Tuesday night over Kansas State.

That was a do-or-die game for the ‘Cats, who fell to 20-10 and 8-7. They’re toast, unless they win four games in four days next week in Oklahoma City, a feat that’s never been accomplished in Big 12 tournament history.

Good luck with that guys.

Past the Big Three, it’s Texas and Oklahoma State — each with identical 20-9 overall and 9-6 league records — whose resumes stand tallest before the selection committee.

Texas A&M has a chance to crash the party if its winning streak reaches a half-dozen and  probably beyond. The Aggies (21-8, 7-7) have to win at Colorado and beat Missouri at home. Have to.

A couple wins at the Ford Center next week wouldn’t hurt in solidifying their standing.

It’s a team that’s on a serious roll. Ask Iowa State, which was run out of the gym in the second half of an 87-69 loss in College Station last weekend.

Here’s what I’ve got right now: Five teams in the NCAA field and one on the bubble.

Thoughts?

Cyclone women…bye, bye, bye

March 2, 2009

Iowa State’s women’s basketball team has all but wrapped up a first-round bye in the Big 12 Conference tournament, sitting at 9-5 in the league with two games to play.

The Cyclones are in fourth place following Saturday’s 59-52 victory at Texas Tech and have a hammerlock on an upper-division finish with how the final week shakes out for competitors like Kansas State and Texas, who each have more difficult roads to navigate.

The teams play each other Wednesday night, meaning only one of them potentially can beat out ISU. K-State then has last-place Colorado (11-15, 3-11), while the Longhorns run up against league-leading Oklahoma. 

ISU ends its season with a road test Tuesday at Missouri (13-14, 4-10) and home finale on Saturday against Kansas (16-11, 5-9).

They should win both and finish at 11-5, their best mark since going 12-4 in the 2004-05 season.

The No. 3 seed is a possibility in the event the Cyclones and Texas A&M tie. ISU beat the Aggies, 67-50, back on Feb. 4.

The Cyclones haven’t had an opening-round bye since earning the No. 3 seed for the 2001 Big 12 Tournament, which they ended up winning for the second straight year.

This year’s tournament is  back in Oklahoma City, where ISU had great success two years ago in reaching the championship game as the No. 5 seed. The Cyclones have lost their first game of the tournament just once (2003) since the formation of the Big 12 at the start of the 1996-97 season.

Bye or no bye — and for the record Coach Bill Fennelly says he’s not real sure whether it is helpful or harmful — Iowa State figures to do something memorable next week.

They seem to have a flair for the dramatic in this event.


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