Calm, cool and collected: How Iowa State’s freshmen made an impact in the NCAA Tournament

The Iowa State women’s basketball’s freshmen had a strong season for the Cyclones.

Megan Teske

A highly touted recruiting class. High expectations for the season. But did the four freshmen in the class of 2020 live up to the hype?

Iowa State women’s basketball finished the season with a 16-10 regular-season record and went 12-6 in the Big 12.

The Cyclones took down then-No. 6 Baylor in Waco, Texas, ending a 61-game home court winning streak for the Lady Bears, handed Oklahoma State its first Big 12 loss of the season and swept four teams in the Big 12 in Kansas, Kansas State, TCU and Texas Tech.

Iowa State also landed a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the second round after taking down No. 10 Michigan State in round one.

All this was done with help from the four freshmen, as Iowa State was the only Power Five school to start three freshmen in all but two games all season, according to Iowa State Athletics.

“For this team to get as far as they did, to win the games they did against arguably, top to bottom, the toughest schedule we’ve had in the toughest year we’ve had to do it, was pretty damn impressive,” Head Coach Bill Fennelly said.

Getting thrown right into the starting lineup from the get-go can be daunting, but freshmen guards Emily Ryan and Lexi Donarski said the leaders on the team were great in helping them get accustomed to the college game.

Fennelly backed that statement up, saying the seniors were phenomenal.

“They did a great job of just articulating to our kids, our freshmen, what it means to play here, what to expect, how to act, all the stuff off the court, … how do you represent Iowa State,” Fennelly said. “They were phenomenal.”

Not only did it help having the likes of seniors Madi Wise, Kristin Scott, Rae Johnson and junior Ashley Joens help them acclimate to the physicality and speed of college basketball, but having three other freshmen in the same boat eased the transition as well.

Ryan said knowing Donarski, Kylie Feuerbach and Aubrey Joens were all going through the same thing as her was important and helped her feel more comfortable.

“I think just having each other to lean on the whole time was huge for us,” Ryan said. “… I’m really grateful to have such a great group with me, and I’m lucky that we’ll be able to go through this whole thing together.”

With a supportive group all around them in teammates and coaches, it’s no surprise the group was able to settle into their roles fairly quickly.

Throughout the season, the Cyclone freshmen picked up nine of the 15 Big 12 Freshman of the Week awards, led by Donarski, who had five.

Donarski and Ryan also eventually landed on the Big 12 All-Freshman Team by unanimous selection, with Donarski securing the Big 12 Freshman of the Year award by unanimous selection.

Donarski, who said she got more comfortable with the starting role and was able to relax around the start of conference play, said the Freshman of the Year award was a goal from the beginning, but she didn’t know what to expect.

“It’s playing at a huge, different level than high school when you’re going into a conference as good as the Big 12, so I didn’t really know what to expect from there,” Donarski said.

Donarski also credited her teammates for winning the award, as she said they put her in a great spot to get it.

“Any individual award comes from the work that the team has all put in,” Donarski said. “It was really an honor, and I just think that I was able to progress throughout the season.”

Improvement throughout the season is something Fennelly saw out of all his freshmen, and he said he was really proud of how they responded after having a bad day or a bad game.

Fennelly said the breakout point for each of the freshmen were the games or days when they came back from disappointment.

“They all had really good moments, they all had disappointing moments, they did it as a group, they were collective in their effort,” Fennelly said.

Aside from the resiliency, both Donarski and Ryan found improvement in other areas of their game throughout the season.

Donarski said her 3-point shot improved as the season went on, and as she found more confidence in her shot, Ryan got more comfortable in Fennelly’s system.

“As a team, just being able to play together better as the year went on, I thought we all got better with that,” Ryan said. “I think picking up from where we ended and just getting better from there, too, will be important.”

After the season ended, the Cyclones had two weeks off, then it’s back to work for the team.

Ryan said the team is excited to get back to work, and she said they need to get better both as a team and individually to set themselves up for a successful season next year.

For Donarski, individual improvement means focusing on finishing and ball-handling.

“Those are two areas that can really benefit me if I’m able to get better at them during the offseason,” Donarski said.

While Ryan and Donarski have their individual goals for improvement over the offseason, Fennelly also has some things he’d like to see improve.

Fennelly said taking better care of the ball and individual on-ball defense are two things he wants to see get better in the offseason.

Now that the freshmen have all had a season under their belts with three returning (Feuerbach entered the transfer portal), Cheryl Miller Award winner Ashley Joens is coming back as a senior along with Izzi Zingaro, who is part of the incoming freshman class. Having joined the team early, it wouldn’t be a surprise if expectations are even higher for the Cyclones come next season.

Fennelly said he believes expectations will go up, but with all the transfers and players getting an extra year, it will be hard to quantify by how much.

Although the Cyclones will be a year older, Fennelly said other teams will be a year older as well.

Ryan also believes expectations will be higher for Iowa State because any time a team gets older, you’re supposed to be better, but she said getting better is not a given.

“You gotta work to get better, even though you are older, it’s not a guarantee you’re gonna be any better unless you put in the work,” Ryan said. “We have a lot to work on this offseason, and that will have to determine how we live up to expectations next year.”