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Iowa State’s Denae Fritz gets a “home” NCAA tournament game in Tennessee
No. 5-seed Cyclones take on 12-seed Toledo in first round Saturday
Maryville, Tennessee sits roughly 20 miles south of Knoxville.
It’s also about the same distance from the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It’s a picturesque suburban town — and it’s also where tough, talented and confident Iowa State freshman guard Denae Fritz grew up.
Now she’s back, ready to help lead the No. 5-seed Cyclones (22-9) against 12-seed Toledo (28-4) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in a first-round NCAA women’s basketball tournament matchup at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.
“It means a lot, obviously, playing in front of people that I know and kind of a big crowd like that,” Fritz said Sunday after ISU donned its first Big 12 tournament crown in 22 years. “I think it will be a really fun moment for us and the team.”
Expect Fritz — who was named to the Big 12’s All-Freshman team — to have an extra large personal cheering section as the Cyclones take on the program that gave their head coach, Bill Fennelly, his first head coaching job. He spent seven seasons with the Rockets and maintains strong bonds throughout that community.
“A lot of them,” said Fennelly, whose team reached the Sweet 16 last season. “We still talk to them a lot. I was getting a lot of texts (last Saturday) when they won their conference tournament and (Toledo head) coach (Tricia) Cullop is a dear friend, and a lot of the players we coached there still live there.”
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Cullop has guided the Rockets to 24 or more wins in seven of her 15 seasons. They’re in the tournament for the second time during her tenure, but seek their first win.
ISU has won at least one tournament game in three straight appearances and rolled through Top 20 foes Oklahoma and Texas en route to its first Big 12 tournament title since 2001.
“This group is pretty tested when it comes to leaving home,” Fennelly said of his Cyclones, who fell one seed line short of hosting first- and second-round tournament games. “We proved that (last) weekend and our non-conference schedule was really hard, so I think they’ll be excited to go and play in a place where — I don’t think Iowa State’s every played there, probably. So it should be fun.”
It certainly will be for Fritz, who earned Tennessee Miss Basketball honors in 2021, suffered through an injury-plagued season last year and is averaging 11.6 points per game in her most-recent five games.
“Anyone is capable of winning at this time of the year, no mater who it is,” Fritz said. “So we need to bing our best game night in and night out.”