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Matt Gubbels

Even with his entire team returning for the 2008-09 season, Bill Fennelly wanted to talk about what his team accomplished this year.

“To be honest with you, I can’t think that far ahead,” said Fennelly, ISU women’s basketball head coach. “Instead of talking in those terms, we should be talking about what this team did and what this team did this year.”

Considering the amount of adversity the Cyclones – who finished 21-13 – had to endure this season, Fennelly’s sentiment is understandable. The Cyclones started the season off 10-2, but disaster struck after that initial glorious stretch. Senior returning starter Toccara Ross tore her ACL at Minnesota on Dec. 21.

Iowa State was able to fight through that loss, however, taking No. 6 Oklahoma to the brink and winning a double-overtime thriller at Colorado. But when the Cyclones traveled to Texas, they experienced a flash of déj… vu when they lost their other returning post from the year before, junior Nicky Wieben, to the same injury as Ross.

The Cyclones eventually fell to 1-4 in the Big 12, but were able to finish the season 7-9, winning five of their last eight games.

One of the big reasons for that turnaround was junior Jocelyn Anderson, who stepped in for Wieben and went from 10-15 minutes per game to 35, earning the Cyclone Pride Award for epitomizing what an ISU women’s basketball player is in the process.

“Her improvement, her commitment, her ability to handle that has been one of the most amazing things I’ve seen,” Fennelly said. “That’s not an award we give out lightly – when we met with the staff, everyone in unison picked her.”

Iowa State was sitting on the bubble to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but was able to defeat Colorado and knock off Kansas State by one in overtime to reach the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament.

Fennelly said other teams have done bigger things at Iowa State, but this team belongs in the conversation with them.

“That is because the way they conducted themselves and the way they put themselves in the position that no one thought was possible,” Fennelly said.

That got them a No. 7 seed and a first-round tournament matchup with Georgia Tech in a near-home game at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. In an up-and-down microcosm of their season, the Cyclones fought off a late run to reach the second round and face second-seeded Rutgers.

Sophomore point guard Alison Lacey – who led the team with 14.2 points per game – said making the tournament this year was a little bit different than her freshman year.

“Making the tournament any year is exciting,” Lacey said. “We’ve been through a lot with [Wieben] and [Ross] being out.”

The Cyclones fell, 69-58, to Rutgers, but showed the same perseverance and fight from before, keeping the game close.

Fennelly said reaching the second round showed his players’ commitments to each other.

“I was harder on this team than any team I’ve ever coached,” Fennelly said. “Not because I wanted to be – but because I was not going to allow them not to try to do some special things.”

The Cyclones will return every player next season and will look to battle for the Big 12 Championship. With big performances from newcomers Anderson and freshman Kelsey Bolte, along with veterans Lacey and junior Heather Ezell, Fennelly will have a team that could match up with anyone. Juggling minutes among all of the players returning will be tougher than having players average 35 minutes per game, as his five starters did after the two devastating knee injuries.

Ezell said a big reason the Cyclones made it as far as they did was their fans, who made their two NCAA Tournament games seem like they were played in Hilton Coliseum, where they finished fifth in the nation in attendance during the regular season.

“It’s hard to know that your season’s over,” Ezell said. “But what these fans have done for us all season cannot be forgotten – they’ve shown so much support for us.”