Updated 6:02 PM EDT Mar 22, 2019
AMES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa State’s players saw the numbers every time they walked into their locker room at Hilton Coliseum.
Coach Bill Fennelly listed the Cyclones’ home record through the years and last season’s mark stood out like an ugly wart: 7-8. That’s not what the Cyclones’ large, loyal fan base was used to seeing and Fennelly wanted to make sure his players never forgot that.
Iowa State turned things around with a 16-2 record at home this season, a big reason the Cyclones (25-8) earned a No. 3 seed in the women’s NCAA Tournament. And they get to play at home again, hosting 14th-seeded New Mexico State (26-6) on Friday, after sixth-seeded DePaul (26-7) meets No. 11 Missouri State (23-9).
“I think the overriding factor for this team was we need to be better in this building for our fans,” Fennelly said. “That was one thing that was documented and discussed a ridiculous amount. That’s one thing we were adamant about with our team. The good thing is, our team agreed.”
Iowa State’s only losses at home were to top-ranked Baylor and a two-pointer to a Texas team that was ranked 11th. It was a sharp contrast to a year ago, when the Cyclones didn’t even make the NCAA tournament and finished 14-17 overall.
“We have one of the best environments in women’s college basketball, so that was an emphasis,” said senior Bridget Carleton, the Big 12 Conference player of the year. “Our fans deserved better than what we gave last year, so we wanted to be the best we could at home and give them all we had, our best effort every single time we stepped on the floor at Hilton.”
The Cyclones’ challenge now is to continue that home success in the postseason. They’d play at home again if they win Saturday and a second victory would send them to the Sweet 16 in Chicago.
Iowa State, which is second nationally in attendance (9,953), has not won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and has not reached the second weekend since 2010.
But with Carleton, the addition of freshman Ashley Joens and Tennessee transfer Alexa Middleton and the development of sophomores Kristin Scott and Madison Wise, the Cyclones have shown they’re a team that could make a March run. They finished second to Baylor in the Big 12 and lost to Baylor in the championship game of the conference tournament.
“I think the idea of playing in the best sporting event in our country in front of your family and friends, I don’t think it gets any better than that,” Fennelly said. “That’s how our players look at it.”
New Mexico State brings a 17-game winning streak under second-year coach Brooke Atkinson, who has quickly established herself in Las Cruces. The Aggies dominated the Western Athletic Conference with a 15-1 record, then won two overtime games in the WAC tournament to earn their fourth NCAA trip in five years.
She succeeded Mark Trakh, who guided the Aggies to three straight WAC titles and NCAA tournament appearances before leaving for his second stint as the coach at Southern Cal.
“When you have that culture and you have those expectations when you step in, that was kind of easy,” Atkinson said. “It was just my job to not screw it up basically.”
DePaul is in the NCAA Tournament for the 17th straight year and 24th time overall, all under coach Doug Bruno, who says getting here is still as exciting as ever. “I’m getting old, but this never gets old,” Bruno said. “You ask how do we keep it fresh, this is one of three biggest team sporting events in America, with the Super Bowl and World Series. So to be a part of it and be a part of it from the inside out, it’s always exciting. It’s such an exhilaration to earn the right to be here.” The Blue Demons won the Big East tournament for the fourth time in the last six years, edging regular-season champion Marquette 74-73 in the title game. Only four other schools have advanced to the NCAAs each of the last 17 seasons and you’ve probably heard of them: Connecticut, Notre Dame, Stanford and Tennessee.
It’s hard to keep the smile off Elle Ruffridge’s face. Not only is the Missouri State sophomore playing in her first NCAA tournament, it’s happening in her home state. Ruffridge starred at Pocahontas Area High School in northwest Iowa, leading her team to two state championships and leaving as Iowa’s career leader in scoring (2,951 points), assists (802) and 3-pointers (466). “As soon as the scroll came across Ames, Iowa, my phone erupted,” Ruffridge said. “So many people contacted me, oh, we’re getting our tickets ordered. To have so many people reach out and just knowing all the support I have in my state is just incredible.” Ruffridge has been a key player off the bench for the Lady Bears, averaging 3.3 points and shooting 32.4 percent from 3-point range. She knocked down a career high four 3s a week ago in a victory over Northern Iowa in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. “Everyone knew she could shoot the basketball,” Missouri State coach Kellie Harper said. “But she also brought to the team a knowledge of winning, a great work ethic, competitiveness and toughness. I’m happy for her that she has the opportunity to play in her home state.”