Blazevich: After a season of adversity, Iowa State came away with a ring


Jacob Rice

The Iowa State women’s basketball team celebrates on stage after ISU’s Big 12 Championship win over Texas, 61-51. Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, MO, Mar. 12, 2023.

There was a lot of finality that came with Iowa State’s loss to No. 12-seeded Toledo in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday.

It was the last time that Ashley Joens would wear an Iowa State jersey, and it was the last time that the big three (Joens, Lexi Donarski and Emily Ryan) – who have grown and developed over the years – would all play together. The loss marked the end of the season for an Iowa State team that was compared to some of the program’s best.

Heading into the postseason, the Cyclones, who entered the year ranked inside the top 10 in the AP Poll, had yet to secure their 20th victory. The season was a mixed bag of excellent wins, paired with plenty of losses and adversity.

But what made this season different for Joens and her teammates? Iowa State finally has a ring to show for it.

“It’s bittersweet,” Joens said, after Iowa State’s 80-73 loss against Toledo.

The 2022-23 season was an anticipated follow-up to Iowa State’s record 28-win season the year before.

The Cyclones returned their young guards Ryan and Donarski, and Joens opted for a fifth year with Iowa State. Nyamer Diew and Morgan Kane were back, along with the addition of two-time NAIA Player of the Year Stephanie Soares.

This lineup of returning talent plus a fascinating addition was meant to take Iowa State to new heights, helping the Cyclones finally reach the pinnacle of the Big 12. But, by the midway point through the season, Iowa State was dealing with its fair share of adversity.

A season-ending ACL injury to Soares was not in the cards when the media projected Iowa State to finish first in the conference. Neither was a shooting slump, which caught a normally sharp-shooting team by surprise.

The Cyclones bounced up and down the AP poll throughout the regular season, but it was clear in the midst of conference play that Iowa State wasn’t breaking any win records, nor were they likely going to compete for a regular season Big 12 championship.

But for all of the team’s struggles, Iowa State put together a strong finish to the season.

“I knew we could compete [in the tournament] because obviously every team we played, we beat,” head coach Bill Fennelly said.

The Cyclones took down both Baylor and Texas in the same season for the first time since 2019-20. They also found a way to avoid any sweeps while winning four of their last six games, relying on three-point shooting that began to percolate by the end of the year.

Iowa State didn’t have the regular season it was predicted to have, but the Cyclones were riding plenty of momentum into the Big 12 Tournament. Once Iowa State reached the tournament, everything seemed to click.

Joens, who had been averaging over 20 points throughout the season, played the best three-game stretch of her Iowa State career. She averaged 26.7 points in the tournament, scoring 28 in the championship game to help the Cyclones clinch their first Big 12 Championship since 2001.

Throughout Joens’ time at Iowa State, the Cyclones have struggled with two primary teams: Texas and Baylor.

Both teams prevented Iowa State from securing a regular season title a year ago, and they limited the Cyclones in the Big 12 Tournament. Not only did Iowa State beat the pair of teams in the regular season, but Joens and her teammates knocked off both en route to the title.

Joens was the star, but other players like Diew, Donarski and redshirt freshman Denae Fritz had their moments of excellence. For three days, Iowa State was playing at its absolute peak, showing that the team could beat anyone at their best.

“We didn’t have the same people that had great games every single game. We had different people step up, which is what we needed,” Donarski said after Iowa State’s championship win.

For all their excellence, the Cyclones earned a ring that was years in the making. It wasn’t Iowa State’s best season, but it was a fitting coronation for one of the most talented rosters in program history.

After reaching the mountain top, Iowa State quickly slid down the other side. A bad shooting day aligned with a 48.4 percent shooting performance from Toledo, which is the recipe for upsets in March.

What made the Cyclones tick in the Big 12 Tournament was absent in the NCAA Tournament, and the team was quickly sent packing after a first round loss.

The final game of the season wasn’t pretty, but for the first time in 22 years, the team has something to show for their success.

“You think about what this team has gone through,” Fennelly said. “It was a group that showed up everyday, no complaints.”

“Success to me is what I saw every day,” Fennelly said.