Niagara falls hard to Iowa State behind big debut from Joens

Ashley Joens and the U.S. team at the U19 FIBA Women’s World Cup took down winless Germany to advance to the tournaments’ second round.

Spencer Suckow

The first seven seconds of Iowa State’s season and WNIT opener against Niagara proved to be a sign of things to come.

The Cyclones won the opening tip and immediately took off running. Before fans could even sit down, Alexa Middleton found a wide-open Ashley Joens on the wing, and the true freshman from Iowa City promptly buried her first bucket career bucket on her first career shot. In the process, Middleton, a senior transfer from Tennessee, also notched her first assist at Iowa State.

From there, both Joens and the Cyclones never looked back. Iowa State shot 54 percent from the field and dominated the Purple Eagles from start to finish in its season opener, winning 95-35, and Joens parlayed that opening bucket to a team-high 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting, including 4-of-9 from three.

“It was a lot of fun just to be able to get out and play again,” Joens said. “Just getting the ball moving obviously is huge, so when people start knocking down shots, it opens up a lot more.”

The impressive debut wasn’t exactly unexpected for Joens — she came to Iowa State as a five-star recruit and the 19th-best high school player in the country, according to ESPN — but it still was encouraging nonetheless after she struggled in the Cyclones’ two exhibition games. 

Even with the struggles, Joens still had the green light from the get-go today. She said that belief from her teammates gave her the confidence to come out of the gates firing.

“I felt more comfortable, and then my coaches and teammates kept encouraging me to shoot,” Joens said. “That helped me a lot.”

As impressive as Joens was in her debut, she wasn’t the only player who stood out in Iowa State’s opener. Bridget Carleton, the team’s top returning player and a member of the preseason All-Big 12 team, started off her senior campaign by flirting with a triple-double. Carleton finished with 14 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists, despite only shooting 3-for-10 from the field.

Carleton said after the game that the all-around success on the stat sheet came primarily due to Niagara keying in on her from the get-go. That makes sense given her preseason accolades and past accomplishments, but Carleton says that her opponents perhaps didn’t realize the skill level of Iowa State’s newcomers.

“Different teams are going to have scouting reports of last year and what I did,” Carleton said. “But we have so many new players that they don’t necessarily know what they can do. If I have an open shot, I’m going to take it, but I’m also going to dish if I need to.” 

Overall, it’s difficult to find fault with how any of the Cyclones played. Beating a team by 60 points makes it hard for any coach to find too much to complain about, especially when the offense nearly breaks a hundred points and the defense doesn’t allow the the other team to crack the 30-point mark until midway through the fourth quarter.

Regardless, coach Bill Fennelly had no problem pointing out that there were areas that need to be improved upon going forward.

For one, the Cyclones were pretty sloppy at times when it came to turnovers. While Iowa State did win the turnover battle, they still gave up the ball up 13 times.  That mark doesn’t exactly enter “problem” territory, but it’s still something to correct going froward.

On top of that, Fennelly had some choice words for the team’s performance at the free throw line, where Iowa State 24-of-34.

“Number one, our free throw shooting was awful,” Fennelly said. “And then I think the other thing is just being organized. I’m good at (finding faults in performance), I promise you.”

Fennelly added that those faults will need to be cleaned up as the team advances further in the WNIT. Iowa State will get one day of rest before playing host to Northern Illinois on Sunday. The Huskies defeated Yale 89-80 in their first round matchup behind 38 points from senior guard Courtney Woods, and the team as a whole shot 29-of-30 from the free throw line.

“Our kids have played enough games where they know what’s coming on Sunday: a lot tougher opponent and a good team,” Fennelly said. 

While avoiding fouls and countering the Huskies’ high-scoring attack will be key, Fennelly said that the biggest factor for Iowa State’s success on Sunday, and going forward, will be managing the team’s minutes and not over-extending players early in the season.

“I think the biggest thing for us is we have to be smart,” Fennelly said. “We play today, practice tomorrow, play Sunday, practice Monday and play Tuesday, so we just have to be smart with how we manage it.”