116 3rd St SE
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AMES — Ashley Joens called last week the toughest the Iowa State women’s basketball team has faced all season.
With good reason.
Joens, Iowa State’s leading scorer and veteran leader, along with her sister, Aubery Joens, missed the Cyclones’ home game against Texas on Jan. 19 due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols, and had to watch their team lose by 18 points. They rejoined the team Sunday in Waco, Texas, only to return to the court for a 26-point loss against the Baylor Bears.
After the two losses, Iowa State dropped from No. 7 in the AP Top 25 to No. 13 ahead of Wednesday’s home tilt against the Kansas Jayhawks (6:30 p.m., ESPN+).
But while the Cyclones (16-3, 5-2 Big 12) looked as lost and out of sorts as they’ve been all year from the outside, they were steady as a rock thanks to two young players with voices louder than they might appear.
That’s where Lexi Donarski and Emily Ryan come into play.
“Emily and (Lexi) are the kind of leaders that any team needs, and especially when you get punched in the nose like we got punched in the nose last week,” ISU Coach Bill Fennelly said Tuesday. “You gotta have someone that rallies. Those two are two of the best at doing that.”
Filling the void of Cheryl Miller Award winner Ashley Joens? What might seem like a tall task to some comes naturally for the Cyclones’ leading guards if you ask Fennelly.
Their ability to lead through the struggle starts with how Donarski and Ryan were raised, Fennelly said. Both were born in the Midwest (Donarski in La Crosse, Wis., and Ryan in Claflin, Kan.) and Fennelly said they always have had a voice ever since they arrived on campus.
It’s only been in the last year or so when their step into leadership has taken off.
And after dealing with two blowout losses and external pressure, Fennelly said his two young guards could sense they had to take charge.
“This team’s going to go where they lead them and I like where that is,” Fennelly said.
And in the grand scheme, Ashley Joens said the Cyclones only lost two games — nothing more and nothing less. They already have put last week behind and have gotten back to work like business as usual.
“It was a tough week,” she said. “And we just have to bounce back from it, stick together and really embrace the Iowa State way and know that the toughest week we’ve had is behind us and we’ve got to improve off of that.”
It’s easy to get down on yourself and question your ability to perform after a rough stretch, but Joens said it’s been crucial to have players like Donarski and Ryan be the voices that guide this team through it all.
“They love to play,” Joens said. “They practice hard, play hard. So that really makes the difference when you can lead not only verbally but also by example as well.”
Overall, Fennelly said Tuesday the Cyclones haven’t seemed down in the dumps and aren’t concerned about their recent turmoil. It’s a bump in the road. Welcome to life.
Practice has been short, but intense, Fennelly said, and has been focused toward doing everything in sync and with detail.
Kansas (12-4, 3-3) is a veteran team with only one of its starters being an underclassman. The Jayhawks have played teams close in the Big 12 this season. Three of their last four league games have been decided by single digits. Kansas’ signature win came when it defeated Texas in Austin, 70-66, on Jan. 12.
“Players move on quickly,” Fennelly said. “Young people nowadays it’s, ‘what’s next? Let’s go.’”