Bill Fennelly’s phone lit up Monday as friends responded to Iowa State’s NCAA tournament assignment.
“I probably had 20 text messages saying, ‘Congratulations, and you got a terrible draw,’” the veteran Iowa State women’s basketball coach said Friday during a press conference at McCarthey Athletic Center.
In Iowa State’s case, it’s at least a more challenging draw than a typical No. 5 seed would expect while opening against a No. 12.
The 12th seed is this case is host Gonzaga, which has advanced to the Sweet 16 at the last three tournaments and is 4-0 in NCAA tournament games played at its home court at McCarthey.
Gonzaga (27-5) will put its 15-game winning streak on the line at 1:15 p.m. Saturday against Iowa State (23-8), which is making its seventh consecutive appearance at the tournament. The Cyclones know they will face a mostly partisan crowd of 6,000.
“They have a great fan base, but those fans can’t score,” Fennelly said. “They can’t guard you. You’ve got to play. The kids are going to decide the game.”
Iowa State features three players – 6-foot-3 junior forward Hallie Christofferson, 6-2 senior forward Chelsea Poppens and 6-7 senior center Anna Prins – who have eclipsed 1,000 career points.
Poppens said she’ll have family members from Seattle supporting the Cyclones.
“I just found out I have some family here I didn’t know about. On my grandma’s side,” Prins said. “They’re actually Gonzaga fans, obviously.”
Iowa State’s size concerns coach Kelly Graves, but his Bulldogs start 6-5 Shelby Cheslek and 6-4 Sunny Greinacher, and bring 6-3 Stephanie Golden and 6-2 Kiara Kudron off the bench.
“From those people that have watched us from day one, we were pretty ugly in November and December,” Graves said. “Our inside kids have really improved. That’s where we’ve made our biggest stride.”
Fennelly said he focused more on Gonzaga’s current status than its early-season concerns inside.
“They’re not redshirt sophomores or freshmen anymore,” Fennelly said. “They’re experienced players in a good system.”
GU’s student-athlete representatives to the press conference, senior guard Taelor Karr and junior guards Haiden Palmer and Jazmine Redmon, are the only Bulldogs with extensive postseason minutes.
“We need to make sure our post players are up to par and just excited and believe in themselves, because we’re supposed to be here just like all the other teams,” Palmer said.
Before transferring to GU, Karr played at Kansas State of the Big-12, Iowa State’s conference.
“They’ve changed a lot,” Karr said. “I haven’t played against them for two years. I remember they have skill inside and out. They have a great coaching staff. Always well-prepared.”
Fennelly’s preparations included convincing his players that it doesn’t matter if a higher seed has to play on a lower seed’s court.
“I told our kids every year we’ve made the tournament, ‘That number just decides what color jersey you wear,’” Fennelly said.