It had been over three years since No. 2 Baylor had lost a conference game.
The Bears were on a 21-game winning streak, winners of their last 58 conference games. The unstoppable giant for Big 12 teams seemed unbeatable.
That is until Iowa State did it.
“When you beat, in my opinion, the best team in the country, I’m sure people who are looking at the scroll aren’t going to believe it happened,” Head Coach Bill Fennelly said.
With the game tied at 56 with 24.3 seconds remaining, the Cyclones knew where the ball had to go — in the hands of Ashley Joens. Joens had been struggling from the field, shooting 3-18 at the time.
But it didn’t matter.
For the Big 12's leading scorer, getting Iowa State the win was all that mattered.
“I knew I had to get to the basket and my teammates put me in a great position to do so,” Joens said. “There were times when we were down today but people stepped up to get us back. We all just stuck together and I think that’s what allowed us to play how we did today.”
Joens leads the nation with 213 fouls drawn, but this last one might be the most memorable.
For Rae Johnson, she knew the game was over when Joens, an 81.7% free throw shooter, went to the line.
“That’s exactly how much confidence we have in Ashley,” Johnson said. “She’s a great player and always puts herself in a great position.”
What might be the craziest part of it all is that Iowa State pulled off the upset without one of its best players. Kristin Scott, the Cyclones’ second-leading scorer and rebounder, sat out with a back injury.
Iowa State started the game with a lineup of Joens and the four seniors of Nia Washington, Ines Nezerwa, Jade Thurmon, and Adriana Camber.
The group was expected to play five minutes and then be subbed out with the game already likely out of hand.
When the first subs came 4:23 remaining, the game was all tied up at 10 and Fennelly thought the group might be on to something.
“Every coach loves the team-win thing but that’s usually not true because the two best players win the game and the others stay out of the way,” Fennelly said. “But this is a game that when people look at the box score and see that those kids played that amount of minutes they won’t believe it.”
Scott’s main replacement, Nezerwa, stepped up in her place.
Nezerwa ended the first quarter shooting 3-3 from the field and 2-2 from the free throw line. She scored the final six points of the quarter to put Iowa State ahead. But foul trouble in the second half put Nezerwa on the bench for much of the action. Nezerwa returned with a couple minutes remaining, and hit a three-pointer from about five feet beyond the line with the shot clock about to hit zero to give Iowa State a 54-52 lead with 1:10 remaining.
Nezerwa’s shot may have perfectly summed up the narrative that many people around the country would think — that Iowa State got lucky.
However, this game was much more than for the Cyclones.
“I told them we don’t have to be better than them in a four out of seven series, we had to be better than them in a 40 minute game,” Fennelly said. “We were lucky but at the same time I am a firm believer that you get lucky when you compete and don’t back down from people.”
A second quarter shooting drought almost cost the Cyclones’ chances of an upset. Iowa State shot 0-10 with the its only points being three Ashley Joens’ free throws.
Part of that was because Baylor sharpened its defensive settings. The other half was because Iowa State could not make the open looks it did have. It also did not help that the Cyclones could not get Joens going.
“[Ashley] probably got hit more than Breece Hall got hit today,” Fennelly said. “She’s going to the basket every play and there’s contact.”
When the second half started, the Bears extended their lead right away to eight points. It looked as if the magic had ran out.
Then, freshman Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw hit a three-pointer to bring the Cyclones back to life.
“I’m getting ready to call a timeout and Billy calls a play for Maggie and says give her one,” Fennelly said. “Then we made the next one and now we’re hanging around.”
After that, the shots started falling, and the atmosphere lit Hilton Coliseum up.
The Cyclones outscored the Bears 22-18 in the fourth quarter.
After a loss to Kansas State on Feb. 26, the Cyclones looked a bit out of shape.
Especially with Scott down, they could have thrown in the towel. But that is the last thing Fennelly would tell this group.
“What I told them was in life you’re going to be faced with some really hard stuff like what Baylor does,” Fennelly said. “You have two choices: you can either step aside and get run over or hang around and get your nose bloodied and win in the end.”
For the four seniors, this is their last game inside Hilton Coliseum.
But the best part is that the season isn’t done yet.
With the Big 12 Championship next on Iowa State’s plate, the team will turn its focus to there.
“This obviously boosted our confidence a lot but we still have to work hard and buckle down and focus on what we have ahead,” Johnson said.
The fourth-seeded Cyclones will play the fifth-seeded Kansas State Wildcats at 11 a.m. Friday.
But it’s safe to say this one is the staple victory for a team heading in the right direction at the right time.
“I’m a huge believer that special people finish things,” Fennelly said. “Anyone can start, but to play 18 Big 12 games, and win the last one when nobody thought we could, we finished this the Iowa State Way.”