How sweet…Fennelly lets his guard down

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.

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