Top-ranked Baylor already has the Big 12 regular season title locked up, but it's very likely that the battle for second place in the conference will be decided on Saturday in Austin.
No. 20 Iowa State and No. 18 Texas, both with identical 11-5 records in Big 12 play and 21-7 records overall, will meet for the second time this season in a game that will likely decide who gets the No. 2 seed in the Big 12 tournament. Not only that, but the game will also provide each team an opportunity to boost their NCAA Tournament seed even further before Selection Sunday.
While it's seemed inevitable for a while now that this game would be important for conference and NCAA Tournament seeding, Iowa State probably didn't anticipate an opportunity to pass Texas outright in the standings just a few nights ago.
That's because on Wednesday night, it seemed the Cyclones were going to squander their chance with a disappointing loss to Texas Tech on the road. Down by seven with less than two minutes to go, with the team on pace to score its lowest amount of points in a game all season, Iowa State's chances appeared to be dead in the water.
However, led primarily by senior Bridget Carleton and her 27 second-half points, the Cyclones scored nine in a row to steal a victory from the Lady Raiders. Seven of those nine points came from Carleton, who also had the game-winner with 3.1 seconds left.
"It was one of those games that's really hard to describe," said Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly. "I think it says a lot about our team. You've got to win games like that from time to time. If you're going to have a good year, you've got to find a win to game when you shouldn't."
Though Fennelly acknowledged there were other factors in the comeback, such as the team's decision to press and a clutch basket from Kristin Scott, he used the comeback as way to once again pound the table for Carleton.
Fennelly, as he's done all season, said Carleton's second half performance was yet another example of why she's the best player in the Big 12 and deserving of the conference's Player of the Year award.
"I think someone sent me a thing that was with a minute to go, we had a one percent chance that we were going to win the game. But we had Bridget." Fennelly said. "I think if you are a basketball fan, coach or media person and you objectively look at it, it should be a landslide."
Carleton acknowledged the game was one of the crazier ones she has been a part of, but the senior was also ready to move on to the challenge at hand against the Longhorns. And it certainly will be a challenge for the Cyclones.
Though Texas is coming off a 29-point loss to Baylor earlier this week, the Longhorns previously handed the Cyclones one of their two home losses on the season. That game, played back in early January, was a 64-62 defensive battle that saw Texas stave off a late comeback effort by the Cyclones.
In that game, Iowa State put up one of its worst offensive performances of the season, shooting only 34 percent from the field. A big reason for those struggles, according to the team, has to do with the fact that the Longhorns present many similar problems to the Cyclones as Baylor does. Mainly, Texas is stout defensively, physical and long.
"Texas is a really good team and we're playing down there on their senior night. They're going to want it bad." Carleton said. "We're excited to play them because we obviously didn't play as well as we could have when they came here. We kind of want some revenge on that."
By getting that revenge, the Cyclones will very likely find themselves in a place few thought they could be before the season started.
While every team's goal is to finish in first place in the conference, the team still acknowledges that finishing in second would be a huge accomplishment. This is especially true when you consider the fact that Iowa State finished in eighth place last year in the Big 12, and was picked to only finish sixth this year.
"It's a great accomplishment for our team," said senior guard Alexa Middleton. "We really want to finish it out the best that we can. We want to finish second and the door just keeps opening wider and wider for us on that, so that's definitely a goal for us."