- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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DAYTON, Ohio -- There will undoubtedly be tears in Iowa State's locker room whenever the basketball stops, perhaps tears of joy in San Antonio after four more wins or more probably tears of disappointment if a loss before then, beginning with Sunday's game against Connecticut, ends the season first.
There might even be some eye mistiness in living rooms across Iowa when the camera, as it invariably will, finds Cyclones senior Alison Lacey in the final seconds of that final game. The tears will come with the realization that it's the last time viewers will see Lacey in an Iowa State uniform, colors she has worn with distinction the past four seasons as a part of 99 wins.
It's only fair those not ready to see her go shed a few tears for a player who shed her own tears five years ago as she sat in the Sydney airport and wondered what she had gotten herself into.
"I think the whole day in Sydney I cried and didn't want to come," Lacey said of the day she left her native Australia for the middle of Iowa. "I was ready to stay. And I think for half the trip over -- it's like a 16-hour flight and half the trip over I was crying."
That was long before Lacey knew about Iowa State or coach Bill Fennelly's basketball program -- before she knew much of anything about the state of Iowa or the Midwest, for that matter. But five years later, she's one of Iowa's favorite daughters, no matter what her accent suggests, and the Aussie who wasn't sure she wanted to go is the leader a young Cyclones team follows.
Looking for a chance to expand their daughter's horizons and give her time to contemplate a future, Lacey's parents suggested she study abroad for a year of high school in the United States. She agreed on the condition her twin brother also go, which led them to an exchange program in Iowa -- the two couldn't stay with the same family and didn't attend the same school, but it did allow them to make the move to the Ames area together.
And it was her brother, Mark, who told her on the initial flight to just "suck it up" and quit crying, sage brotherly advice she noted that he repeated a few times in the early days. Going from her hometown of Canberra, Australia's capital city, to a country where she wasn't even entirely sure of the governmental structure and a city where she couldn't drive was more than a bit overwhelming.
To say she was homesick is to say Iowa State is a slight underdog Sunday against Connecticut (ESPN/ESPN360.com, noon ET).
"It's kind of that -- the moment where you just want to go sit in the bathroom because you don't know anyone at lunchtime kind of thing," Lacey said of her first fall in high school.
Things started to change for the better once basketball began, giving Lacey at least the familiar comfort zone of the court. One of the families trying to ease her welcome in Iowa was that of Annette and Jeff Zimmerman, whose daughter, Amanda, was a freshman at Ballard High School that year and played alongside Lacey on varsity. A little more than four years later, Zimmerman is once again a freshman playing alongside Lacey, this time at Iowa State.
"She was really quiet when she first came here, definitely," Zimmerman said of the year they shared at Ballard. "But when we first started playing basketball, like when our practices began, she really started to get open with us. She changed a lot during that season, so it was really helpful knowing the basketball team could help her out."
Likewise, she could definitely help out the team. Zimmerman said girls' basketball has always been a big deal at Ballard, but the team reached the state final with a 26-1 record in Lacey's only season. By that time, she had long since found a place on Fennelly's radar. He had earlier dispatched assistants Jack Easley and Jodi Steyer to watch Lacey at an AAU tournament in Kansas City. It only took a half for Easley to call his boss and tell him, no matter how much he might not want to hear it, this kid was better than anyone they were currently recruiting. A 6-foot guard with the vision of a point guard, the range to feel at home with the NBA 3-point line and the body and mind to get inside and rebound, she was and is almost one of a kind.
"I don't know how to explain it, but in high school when you have those [players] that, you can see them see the floor a little bit different than everybody else, they just stand out," Steyer said. "And then her total all-around game -- her passing, her shooting, drives to the basket. In women's basketball, even where it's come right now, you don't have a lot that are that strong in all areas. And that, really, was what made her stand out."
Lacey was a factor for the Cyclones from her first game -- literally, as she put up 12 points on four 3-pointers, nine rebounds and three assists in her debut against Cal State Fullerton, just a hint of the kind of box score damage that was to come. By her sophomore season, she led the team in points, 3-pointers and assists. All of which were the seeds of a memorable career that was destined to leave her at or near the top of the program record books in a number of categories. But it wasn't until this season, with a framework put in place last season, that she put the finishing touches on becoming an Iowa State legend.
That's when Lacey took over full control of the point guard duties for a team that lost three starters from a squad that reached the Elite Eight last season. And as many assists as she has dished out this season -- she's ninth in the nation, second only to Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot among players on teams that reached the Sweet 16 -- she really earned that label over the summer with a roster that includes four freshmen and two sophomores among its primary nine-player rotation.
"Aus is not a real rah-rah, vocal kind of leader, kind of person," Fennelly said, using Lacey's self-evident nickname. "I think she does it by the way she plays and the way she acts. But last summer, she had an opportunity to play for the Australian team in the World University Games and she said no because she wanted to stay with our freshmen in the summer. I think it started then, as far as her translating to them exactly what Iowa State does and how we're going to practice and how we're going to prepare."
Whenever the season ends, she'll go wherever the opportunity to keep playing basketball presents itself. It might be home, a place she has been just twice for a grand total of three weeks since arriving at Iowa State, or it might be yet another continent. But she'll be hard pressed to get more out of any stop than she has in Iowa for the past five years.
"The people of Iowa, what they've done for me -- they've made me feel so comfortable because I was so homesick and such a homebody," Lacey said. "So for me to feel so comfortable to stay for five years, it just says a lot about the people I'm around."
And since this is ultimately a happy story, and a happy story about an Australian no less, consider finally Lacey's failed Aussie-fication of the Iowa populace when it came to Vegemite, the dark brown goo made from yeast extract that is an Australian staple.
"I remember in high school actually she made us try it -- one time," Zimmerman said with a pained look and an emphasis on the singular nature of the event. "I wasn't a big fan of it."
Vegemite. Now there's something that's definitely enough to make you cry.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.