Three Big Takeaways: Iowa State finds new identity, takes down Kansas State


Daniel Jacobi II

The Iowa State bench comes off of the bench during a timeout to celebrate with the other five players during the game against Kansas State in Hilton Coliseum on Jan. 11, 2023.

Christian Royston, Sports Reporter

AMES — After a rough weekend, losing not only the game against Oklahoma, but Stephanie Soares as well, the Cyclones needed a quick turnaround as they faced off against Kansas State.

Traveling back home to play in front of an energetic Hilton crowd proved to be the momentum the Cyclones needed to pick up yet another win in the Big 12. Kansas State battled hard, but Iowa State came out on top in the end, securing a 67-56 win.

“Finding a way”

The big storyline going into the matchup with Kansas State was how the Cyclones would adapt to Soares’ absence.

“Before the game, we talked about finding a way to have some success given the situation we’re in,” Iowa State head coach Bill Fennelly said. “One of those ways is to have balance. I thought our balance on both ends of the floor was phenomenal.”

Early in the weekend matchup with Oklahoma, Soares went down after putting up a shot and fell to the ground grasping her left knee. That would be the last time she was on the court in that game and the season.

Soares had suffered a torn ACL, taking her out for the rest of the year. With how dominant she was in the paint and the threat she presented all over the court, her absence was sure to be felt.

“Obviously with [Soares] out, all of us have to step up as a team and replace the minutes that she played for us,” Denae Fritz said. 

However, the Cyclones had a few days to think up a plan of attack moving forward. Without Soares in the starting lineup, Diew would take the starting spot against Kansas State.

As Lexi Donarski lined up for the tipoff, everyone in Hilton was silent, waiting to see what the Cyclones could bring to the table. Soares had made every tipoff a sure thing for the Cyclones, but now someone else had to take over that role.

Donarski handled herself well, and from that point on, the Cyclones just needed to figure out how they managed before Soares came to town. 

“Our whole system from the summer on was built in a certain way,” Fennelly said. “Now the system is reverted back. Which is fine, but that’s gonna take some time too.”

Morgan Kane had good work in the post, with other Cyclones stepping up to the plate to put up points and get boards. 

Before the game, Donarski was presented with a ball commemorating her last home game against West Virginia, where she passed the 1,000 career point mark. From the start of the season, Donarski had been electric on both ends of the floor.

That was true again when facing off against Kansas State. 

Donarski knocked down an early three-pointer to get the ball rolling for the Cyclones. Late in the second quarter, with the game tied, she hit another going into the media timeout.

One possession later, Donarski hit another and another. Three-straight threes to get the crowd on its feet. At that moment, it seemed like she couldn’t miss.

“I think that all of us hitting some threes, which we struggled to do in some games in the past, I think knocking some down really helped us gain momentum, and it really got Hilton nice and loud,” Donarski said. “Hilton is just such a fun place to play at when we have the energy of the crowd.”

Donarski finished the game with 14 points. One of four Cyclones on the day to put up 14 points.

To no one’s surprise, Ashley Joens was another Cyclone to hit that mark. When the Cyclones were on a scoring drought, Joens was there to ignite the crowd.

“She’s one of the top players in the country. That kid will be a first-round pick. Should’ve been a first-round pick last year, but she chose to come back, which is really good for Iowa State,” Kansas State head coach Jeff Mittie said. “She’s a heck of a player. I’ll be glad when she’s a first-round pick.”

Another player looking to step up in Soares’ place was Fritz. Before the game, Fritz had just one game passing the 10-point mark. By the end of the game, she had a new career-high 14 points.

Fritz was physical on defense, keeping Gabby Gregory, the Big 12’s leading scorer, under 10 points. She was also knocking down every shot she could. Her toughness shined through as Fritz finished with seven rebounds and three blocks.

“I’m not surprised at all. She’s a really good player,” Mittie said.

The last player to reach the 14-point mark was Emily Ryan.

Emily Ryan drives to the hoop against Kansas State on Jan. 11, 2023. (Tyler Coe)

Emily Ryan: The Machine

Ryan had impressed during the start of the Big 12 season, facilitating the game in a dominating way. She was usually the first player to touch the ball on any given possession and was an expert at creating opportunities for the offense.

Assists and rebounds came easy to her, as she saw the court like no other. However, with someone needing to fill the point gap that Soares left, it was more important than ever for Ryan to dominate across the board.

“We can’t have anyone out there that’s not looking at the basket. She’s in the gym twice a day, and she scored a gazillion points in high school,” Fennelly said. “We need you to do that here.”

With the pressure on, Ryan did what was asked of her. By the half, Ryan was dominating the boards and racking up the assists.

By the media timeout in the third quarter, Ryan was nearing a triple-double. She was two rebounds, three assists and four points away. 

Her ninth rebound came in the first possession of the final quarter. As she drove the ball back down the court, all she could see was the rim. She drove in and put up a contested layup, making the shot and picking up a trip to the line to make it a three-point play.

With just one more point to go, she didn’t make the fans at Hilton wait long for her to eclipse the double-digit mark. Fritz gets a block on the defensive end of the court and immediately finds Ryan wide-open from the three-point line.

With just air between her and the net, Ryan let the ball fly. As the ball came down, the swish of the net was instantly drowned out by the roar of the crowd.

Ryan bounded back down the court, roaring back at the crowd. With all the momentum in Iowa State’s favor, a timeout was called by the wildcats to figure out how to put a lid on the energy that Ryan was bringing.

“The kid plays so hard. She’s the leader of our team,” Fennelly said. “She keeps us organized. She’s the one that everyone listens to.”

Ryan secured her double-double later in the game, rebounding a missed Kansas State shot with a minute left in the game. Her final stat line read 14 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

Just two assists off a triple-double. Judging by the smile on her face, those assists could come another day.

Defense is key

To win in the Big 12, defense had to be a big focus for the Cyclones. With the offense getting all the attention, it was easy to miss the performance that the Cyclones had on the opposite end of the court.

However, both coaches couldn’t help but praise Iowa State’s defense after everything was said and done.

“Defensively, we were as good as we could be,” Fennelly said.

Without Soares, it was expected that the defense may have some issues, but the Cyclones held their own, keeping Kansas State to just 33% shooting from the floor.

Iowa State also dominated on the perimeter, keeping the Wildcats to just 28% from three. That dominant defense helped keep Kansas State from making any runs and getting back into the game.

Kansas State started to surge back late in the first half, getting back within 3 points before the buzzer. But the defense was too suffocating in the second half and Iowa State pulled out the double-digit win.

“To their credit, their defense was really physical. Their defense was really good,” Mittie said. “They kept us in front. Didn’t give us anything easy, so those runs were harder to make.”

With tough Big 12 matchups ahead, the Cyclones will have to continue to show greatness on defense to make it out of conference play in one piece.