What a game. What a showcase for college basketball.
The No. 15 Iowa State Cyclones snapped a five-game losing skid in the Cy-Hawk series, beating the No. 12 Iowa Hawkeyes 77-70 in a showdown that was everything you could hope for and more from an in-state rivalry matchup Wednesday in Hilton.
Caitlin Clark and Ashley Joens trading blows. Another Iowa City kid in Aubrey Joens having several big moments. Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw, a through-and-through Cyclone, making a couple big plays and stepping up while Emily Ryan was in foul trouble. Lisa Bluder and Bill Fennelly, both firmly entrenched at their respective programs, leading their teams from the sideline.
After all the cliché statements and assurances that this was just another game to go out and win, one thing was clear on both sides.
This one means a little bit more.
An extra pump of the fist. Increased high-fives on the way to the bench. Cracking a smile after draining a shot.
Winning this game is a great feeling, and it’s a feeling the Cyclones have recaptured after five years without it.
In terms of stakes, this won’t be the most important game for Iowa State this year. It may not even make the top five.
If it will be topped when it comes to emotion, well, let’s wait and see.
Heading into the fourth quarter, Fennelly made sure his team understood and appreciated the moment.
“I just told them: ‘You’ve got a three-point lead with 10 minutes to go in the best place in America to play,'" Fennelly said. “‘This is what you came to school here for. This is what college sports is supposed to be about.'"
Iowa State built up a lead as big as 12 points in the second quarter before Iowa came roaring back.
After failing to finish the past couple of meetings, most notably allowing a 26-7 fourth quarter to the Hawkeyes last year and losing after holding an 18 point lead, not finishing once again would be an incredible disappointment.
But the Cyclones fought back, too.
“They had beaten us five years in a row, so we knew it was gonna be a tough game,” Ashley Joens said. “They were gonna come and they were gonna fight. So we just had to keep fighting and winning each quarter.”
Bolstered by the Hilton crowd, there were plenty of moments where it felt like the roof would blow off of the place.
For sophomores like Lexi Donarski who had yet to experience a crowd like the one that showed up tonight, it was a great experience.
“I think tonight was the first time my class has really experienced a packed gym here, and it was a lot of fun,” Donarski said.
After the final buzzer, the team huddled up at center-court in celebration, belting out 'Sweet Caroline' with the crowd. Donarski said all of the adrenaline and excitement had built up, and that the energy was flowing through everyone.
The team doesn’t usually celebrate on the court and sing 'Sweet Caroline.'
But this one means a little bit more.
One of the big narratives each and every year since Ashley Joens has been at Iowa State is that she comes from Iowa City. And, even bigger than that, she had failed to beat her hometown team throughout her Iowa State career.
Tonight, that narrative changed.
Ashley grabbed the final rebound of the game. She iced the game with the team’s final three points at the free-throw line. Even on a poor shooting night, the impact she has both as a leader and a competitor was clear for everyone to see.
Following that final rebound, Ashley cracked a smile as she was fouled and heading to the line.
While talking about that smile, Ashley chalked it up to nothing more than a big rebound that effectively ended the contest.
“It’s good for her,” Fennelly said. “Obviously, when you come from Iowa City, and she hasn’t had success in this series up until today, for her to play the way she played and get the last rebound, someone was looking over us today.”
“If this is her last year at Iowa State, I promise you this is a moment that you’re gonna see her smile a little more than normal.”
Fennelly talked about how happy he is for the fanbase, and for anyone who loves Iowa State. But he spent more time talking about how happy he was for his players. They work hard, and tonight they were rewarded for it.
He described his relationship as a coach as similar to that of a parent.
“You want your kids to feel good,” Fennelly said. “You want your kids to be able to smile and celebrate.”
Before every game, Fennelly tells his players that when they walk up that east ramp right outside of Hilton, they need to walk up with their head up, eyes open and hearts full.
“This is a moment they’ll walk up that ramp and they’ll never forget it,” Fennelly said. “Those moments don’t come a lot in sports. Not as much as you want. But this group got it, and I’m really, really happy for them.”