The women’s basketball season has arrived at Iowa State with the first game set to kick off the season at noon Wednesday at Hilton Coliseum against Omaha.
Iowa State Head Coach Bill Fennelly opened the press conference Monday, where he spoke to the media about the game against Omaha, saying both he and the team are looking forward to the game to open the season.
“I’m really, really proud of the players, the staff, everyone for getting us to this point,” Fennelly said. “Our kids are excited and looking forward to a little bit different ‘Hilton Magic’ but still, still a little bit of magic in the building hopefully and we’re looking forward to playing Wednesday at noon.”
Fennelly is alluding to the fact that fans will be allowed in a limited capacity at Hilton Coliseum this season due to COVID-19 and cases rising in the state and the U.S., diminishing the effect of Hilton Magic and the fans.
With the loss of fans comes the loss of the added energy, so the Cyclones will have to make up for that some other way.
Fennelly said the team practices without fans and they are just excited to play, so that will help bring in energy. He will also be looking to team leaders to lead the charge in bringing energy.
“We talked a lot about that with our team, we practice without fans so we really try to get them to understand that,” Fennelly said. “Obviously there should be a lot of excitement to even get a chance to play, so hopefully that’ll be the case. Certainly the older players are more used to the environment at Hilton but they have the experience of playing so we need that.”
Fennelly also said there might be the band and they have experienced with music and crowd noise being played, but the bottom line comes down to being able to play the game.
Fan capacity isn’t the only thing that has changed with COVID-19 measures, as Fennelly said the bench, timeouts and seating are different. He said the team just got into Hilton for the first time last week.
There is no seating at the bottom level of Hilton nor bleachers at the end like there usually is for basketball games, and handshakes will also not be happening.
Since a lot was shut down during the offseason, the Cyclones didn’t get to get a lot of time in for practice and to build team chemistry.
Fennelly said Wednesday’s game is big just because the team will get to play.
“I’m really in the camp of you take care of your players, your staff, your families, obviously the health and safety of them is number one, and then after that just play,” Fennelly said. “... I think this year winning and losing can be defined really by you win if you get to play, and that’s what I want our players to do, that’s been our focus from the very beginning.”
With the question of whether there would be a season up in the air at the start of the year, the players said they are excited to get going and start playing.
Freshman guard Lexi Donarski said the team is really excited to have a season with everything that is going on and is excited to get into the middle of all of it.
Senior forward Kristin Scott said the first practice at Hilton made everything seem more real.
“I think finally that we can officially say it’s game week and we have no concerns coming in,” Scott said. “... we’ve been practicing at Hilton and I think when we had our first practice at Hilton that kinda made it seem more real and that we’re actually going to do this.”
Scott said it was nice for everyone to be back in Hilton and to get the exciting feeling back again.
Iowa State did not have any exhibition games, but Fennelly said they have had a scrimmage and what he has seen from the freshmen — who he said will play Wednesday — is that they are ready and not scared of the moment.
“They’re skilled, they’re competitive, they’re gonna play,” Fennelly said. “They’re gonna make great plays, they’re gonna turn the ball over, defense and learning the system is always hard but they’re winners. They know exactly what they need to do, they just haven’t had to do it yet.”
Donarski, one of the freshmen who will play Wednesday, said the upperclassmen have helped make the freshmen feel included and help them get ready for the season with whatever they needed.
She also said the previously mentioned scrimmage helped to get into a game-like situation to prepare for Wednesday.
“It was nice to get more into the flow of the game rather than just up-and-down stuff,” Donarski said. “It was nice to get a full scrimmage in.”
As for preparing for the game against Omaha, Fennelly said the focus has been mainly on the Cyclones leading up to Monday because Omaha has a new head coach who has never been a head coach before.
“We’ll show some personnel clips from Omaha from last year so we have that, they have a lot of returning players so we have video from last year, we have stats from last year, but we have no idea how they’re going to play,” Fennelly said. “... We’ve really tried to prepare for a little bit of everything but it’s probably been 90 percent Iowa State-centric and 10 percent Omaha personnel and then we’ll kind of deal with it on the fly as the game goes on.”
Fennelly announced the Cyclones will be without sophomore guard Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw on Wednesday and that the four freshmen will be playing.
In another changeup to the lineup, it was announced Monday night Fennelly has entered a 14-day quarantine after being in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.
Fennelly and everyone else in the program have since tested negative for coronavirus, but Associate Head Coach Jodi Steyer will take up head coaching duties in Fennelly’s absence, including Wednesday’s game.
“I am thankful to have an amazing staff to manage the program while I am away,” Fennelly said in the statement.
The No. 15 Cyclones will open the season at noon Wednesday at Hilton Coliseum against Omaha.