116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
AMES — They could have opted for fun in the sun. Beaches and basketball.
A Thanksgiving tournament somewhere in the tropics, where the games still matter, but it feels like more of a vacation than a testing ground.
Iowa State’s women’s basketball said “no” to all of the above.
“Especially the ‘Big Three,’” said Cyclones head coach Bill Fennelly, referring to star guards Ashley Joens, Emily Ryan and Lexi Donarski.
So fifth-ranked ISU begins a challenging, but welcomed two-game run at the Phil Knight Invitational at 4:30 p.m. Thursday against high-scoring Michigan State in Portland, Ore.
Win or lose, the Cyclones (4-0) will face either eighth-ranked North Carolina or No. 18 Oregon on Sunday. They’ll also emerge stronger, wiser and better prepared for a Dec. 7 meeting with No. 9 Iowa, a grueling 18-game Big 12 slate, and what they hope will be a deep NCAA tournament run in March.
“That’s what they wanted,” Fennelly said. “We explained, ‘This is what you’re gonna do (on) Thanksgiving and we play Thursday, then we don’t play until Sunday.’ All that kind of stuff, but they wanted it and we were fortunate enough to be asked to begin with.”
ISU will start fast, hoping to keep pace with a Spartans team (6-0) that ranks fifth nationally in points per game at an even 91.
The Cyclones are the 13th-highest scoring team in women’s basketball, scoring 88.3 points per game — and clamping down on one or more of the “Big Three” doesn’t necessarily ensure a positive outcome.
“I think when people scout us they’re gonna look and say, ‘OK, how do you guard them?’” Fennelly said.
That’s because 6-foot-6 senior transfer Stephanie Soares gives ISU something it’s never had before: A big player who can score from the perimeter as well as in the paint.
“She’s done an amazing job so far,” said Joens, who leads the Cyclones in scoring (25.5) and rebounding (11.0), as usual. “Obviously getting the ball down low and scoring. She gets rebounds and then also knocks down shots from the outside. So having her in there really helps with our defense; kind of adds that length and spreads the floor on offense, as well.”
Soares is averaging 15.3 points and 7.5 rebounds in 22.3 minutes per game. She’s shooting 44.4 percent (4-for-9) from 3-point range and has batted away 10 shots. She’s truly one of the most unique bigs in the country — and she’s still transitioning from playing at the NAIA level to shining for a top-five Power Five program.
“The amount of work that that kid is putting in — I’m not gonna say she’s working harder than anyone on our team, but she’s on the list,” Fennelly said. “She’s in there 40 minutes before practice. She’s working on her shot. She’s working on ball-handing and catching drills with the staff.
“So she is invested and I think she’s appreciative of the opportunity she has here, and knows it’s a one-time shot.”