Iowa State's game against Baylor at 3 p.m. Saturday is huge for the Cyclones, and its not hard to see why.
Starting with the obvious, Baylor is the top-ranked team in the country and the Cyclones and Bears are the top two teams in the Big 12. The Cyclones have never defeated a No. 1 ranked team in their history.
A win on Saturday would not only be a landmark victory for the program, but it'd undoubtedly be a huge boost for the Cyclones' confidence going into the NCAA Tournament.
Speaking of the tournament, a win on Saturday would also be crucial for Iowa State's tournament resume. Beat Baylor and finish strong down the stretch, and Iowa State will almost certainly host an NCAA regional, meaning that the team would play the first two rounds of the tournament at home.
Add in the fact that no player on Iowa State's roster has ever beaten Baylor, and that a win Saturday would be the 500th in the career of coach Bill Fennelly. It's easy to see that Saturday's is an opportunity for perhaps the biggest win in the history of Iowa State women's basketball.
With all that in mind, however, Fennelly said he's going about his routine as normal going into Saturday, but he also said he's aware of the of the big-game atmosphere that a game against Baylor brings.
"Obviously the attention is a little bit more," Fennelly said. "It's like when you play an in-state game or if you're fortunate enough to play a postseason game. There's always a heightened awareness."
The Cyclones had a chance for a victory earlier in the season against the Lady Bears, but ultimately fell short and lost the game by 15 points. In that game, Iowa State was able to hang around for much of the first half, but Baylor outscored the Cyclones 25-12 in the third quarter to deliver a knockout blow.
According to the Fennelly, that ability to find an extra gear and finish off teams has been a consistent strength for Baylor for the better part of this decade, and it's what makes the Lady Bears a national contender year in and year out.
"The history with them, has always been you feel like 'hey we're hanging around' and they hit you with a 10-0 or 12-0 run and the game is over," Fennelly said. "They're the number one team in the country for a reason."
So what's the key to making sure that doesn't happen again? According to Fennelly, it'll take a combination of factors.
For as good as Iowa State's been this season, Baylor is arguably the most talented team in the country. Fennelly acknowledged that it'll certainly take a lucky bounce or two here and there, and that the Lady Bears will have to miss some shots that they'd normally make.
What Iowa State does have going for it, however, is the advantage of playing at home, where the team is 15-1 this season. There's a solid chance Saturday will bring Iowa State's biggest crowd of the season, so there should be plenty of energy for the Cyclones to feed off of.
It also helps that Iowa State's starting five might be, as a unit, playing the best it's played all season. Each starter scored in double figures on Wednesday against Oklahoma, and four of five did so last Saturday against Oklahoma State. Baylor does present problems defensively for the Cyclones because of its size, but the offense looks to be up to the task on paper.
"I think us five have been playing really well together starting off," said senior guard Alexa Middleton earlier this week. "I think our offense has been really smooth."
It'll take nearly everything going right for the Cyclones to win Saturday, but the opportunity is there to make a statement. If the team plays up to its capabilities on offense, limits the effectiveness of Baylor's post players defensively and gets a few lucky bounces, history can be made at Hilton Coliseum.
That certainly is a lot to ask, but anything can happen over the course of one game. And Iowa State knows it.
"It's not a best four out of seven," Fennelly said. "You hang around. You don't get knocked out. You give it your best shot and see what happens."