Preview: Fennelly's program reaches elite level
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AMES – The numbers paint a clear picture.
Iowa State is one of the elite women’s basketball programs in the country.
Need proof? On Monday, the Cyclones punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the 14th time since 1997. Iowa State earned a No. 5 seed and will travel to Spokane, Wash., to play Gonzaga in the first round.
“My thinking is, if it gets old, I should quit,” Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said. “This is what’s it’s all about.”
Since 1997, no Big 12 team has played in as many NCAA tournaments as Iowa State. Nationally, just 13 schools can match the Cyclones 14 appearance in the big dance during that time frame.
When Iowa State tips with Gonzaga on Saturday at 3:15 p.m., it’ll be the seventh-straight season the Cyclones have played in the NCAA’s. Only 12 other schools have active streaks of seven or more appearances in a row.
“It’s really special to say that,” senior Anna Prins said. “It’s unique to be considered in that elite group.”
Bulldogs pose threat
Iowa State assistant coach Billy Fennelly made it clear on Monday. The Cyclones aren’t satisfied simply getting to the NCAA Tournament again – Iowa State wants to do some damage.
After getting bounced in the first round the last two years, the Cyclones will need to be at their best to get past Gonzaga.
“(Gonzaga coach) Kelly Graves does an amazing job,” Bill Fennelly said. “I really appreciate how they do things.”
The Bulldogs will enter Saturday’s tilt with a record of 27-5 and plenty of NCAA Tournament experience.
Gonzaga has made three-straight trips to the Sweet 16, including a run to the Elite 8 two years ago.
“Gonzaga is known for basketball – not just men’s basketball,” Fennelly said.
The 2012-13 Bulldogs are led by Kansas State transfer Taelor Karr, who was named West Coast Conference player of the year after averaging 10.8 points per game. Junior Haiden Palmer’s paces Gonzaga with 12.4 points per game.
Ready for the test
The Bulldogs will be squaring off with a battle tested Iowa State squad. The Cyclones finished second – behind only No. 1 Baylor - in the Big 12 in both the regular season and postseason tournament.
It’s safe to say playing on Gonzaga’s home court won’t faze Iowa State.
“Road games in the Big 12 are just like this,” guard Brynn Williamson said. “There’s so much momentum, and games you should win on paper, you don’t because of the atmosphere.”
Luckily for Iowa State, the Cyclones will depend on the experience of all-conference performers Hallie Christofferson and Chelsea Poppens. Christofferson elevated her game this season, tallying 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest. All Poppens did was nearly average a double-double (13.1 points, 9.5 rebounds).
Maybe a X-factor in the tournament for Iowa State is Anna Prins. The senior is arguably playing the best basketball of her career right now, earning Big 12 tournament honors last week.
“Being a senior with not much time left, I’m trying to let it all go and enjoy every moment on the court with this team,” Prins said. “The great moments keep coming.”
Nikki Moody and Williamson will be playing in their second NCAA Tournament. That experience should help as the Cyclones look for another deep march run.
“I love our team this year,” Poppens said. “We all know how to play well with each other. We all trust each other.
“The fact of how much I love this team this year, it gives us more confidence going in and playing our first game.”
Cyclones get commit
Maybe it’s a good omen before the tournament kicks off.
Iowa State received a commitment from Rosanna Gambino – a junior college center from Kishwaukee College in Ill. Gambino will have two years of eligibility left when she joins the Cyclones next fall and should immediately help on defense.
“She set our single game, single season and career block records,” Kishwaukee coach Kat Martin said. “She is just a defensive minded post. That’s so rare and it’s one of the things that made her valuable to the Division I teams.”
Gambino – who had interest from Fresno State, Michigan State and others – helped Kishwaukee to a 27-7 record this season and a sixth-place finish at the national tournament.
“You have to play to her speed,” Martin said. “She’s not a slow post by any means.”
With the graduation of Anna Prins, Chelsea Poppens and Amanda Zimmerman, Gambino has a chance to compete for playing time right away.
Gambino earned academic all-conference honors at Kishwaukee and plans to be pharmacy major at Iowa State.
“She’s pretty special,” Martin said. “I have no doubt she’s going to fit in perfectly with the team, staff and culture of Iowa State athletics.”