Commentary

For Fennelly, the risk is worth taking

To beat UConn, ISU coach might once again bank on high-risk, high-reward game plan

Originally Published: March 25, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Alison LaceyAP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThe fourth-seeded Cyclones and Alison Lacey beat Lehigh and Green Bay en route to the Sweet 16.

AMES, Iowa -- Before his team's NCAA second-round game on Tuesday, Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly saw the score of the UConn-Temple contest at halftime: 50-12. He didn't need to see more.

Wednesday, after his team had survived Green Bay 60-56 at Iowa State's Hilton Coliseum, Fennelly sat in his office at the Cyclones' practice facility.

"I haven't watched that game," Fennelly said, chuckling, about the Huskies' 90-36 victory over the Owls. "I'm not sure I even should. One of my assistants is doing it."

Mind you, it's not that Fennelly doesn't relish the challenge -- he does. He just knows that virtually any game video you watch of No. 1 UConn this season would show you pretty much the same thing.

"I think to do anything at that level, to show up and play that hard every night is amazing," Fennelly said of the Huskies and their 74-game winning streak. "It's not just that they're winning, it's the way they're winning. You don't do that by accident. There's not many people who can say they showed up and busted their butt at work every day, but it seems like that's what they're doing.

"I don't even know if it's about the streak. I think they just want to compete, and they're good at it. When you combine great coaching, great talent and a great amount of confidence -- for everybody else, it's like you're sitting on the track, and here comes the train.

[+] EnlargeBill Fennelly
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallBill Fennelly has guided Iowa State to its second straight (and fifth overall) trip to the regional semifinals.

"I don't think anyone goes into a game thinking, 'We're going to lose.' But the fear is, 'When something bad happens, how do you stop it? How do you keep them from running away with it?' No one's figured it out for two years. They are so talented that even when things aren't going as well for them as they could, at any moment it can turn on for them. It's amazing to watch; it's a machine."

All that said, don't think Fennelly and the Cyclones are just going to stay in Ames and send a white flag to Dayton. He is both a motivator and a tactician, and he'll tell his players to fight until they're figuratively carried out on their shields.

And because they're Iowa State Cyclones, they'll do it.

That has been one of the hallmarks of Fennelly's teams since he came to Ames in 1995 from Toledo. His first season was the last of the old Big Eight, then he ushered in the Big 12 with Iowa State's first NCAA tournament appearance in 1997. The Cyclones had gone 9-7 in the league that season, and felt they would be on the good side of the NCAA bubble with a solid Big 12 tournament performance.

Iowa State beat Texas A&M in the first round, but then struggled to score in falling 56-39 in the quarterfinals to eventual tourney champ Colorado. In the news conference afterward, fearful the low score might sway the NCAA committee against extending a bid to the Cyclones, Fennelly -- who makes no apologies for being a passionate, emotional guy -- broke down in tears talking about how hard his players had worked that season.

Jayme Olson, then a junior and one of the foundation players in his program, reached over to pat him on the shoulder as if to say, "It's OK, coach, we'll do it next year."

But … the committee did give Iowa State a bid at 17-11, and the Cyclones were truly on their way as one of the Big 12's most reliably successful programs. Iowa State now has made the NCAA field in 11 of Fennelly's 15 seasons, going to the Elite Eight twice.

And the first of those trips to the regional finals came at the expense of a No. 1-seeded UConn team. That was in 1999, when the Huskies had a lot of talent but no true point guard after then-freshman Sue Bird had suffered a torn ACL early in that season.

Iowa State, by contrast, had a consummate point guard in Stacy Frese, and -- as is typical of a Cyclones team -- a cast of 3-point shooters who knew they always had the green light. At one point in the second half, the Cyclones hit 3-pointers on five consecutive trips down the court, and for one of the very few times in his coaching career, UConn's Geno Auriemma had no answer.

"I do think it certainly was one of the first times people started to hear about us and knew we had a team," Fennelly said of that 64-58 Sweet 16 victory in Cincinnati. "To beat one of the two most well-known programs in your sport -- people here still talk about it. I wouldn't say it was a defining moment, but it was one of the more special things that has happened here."

Fennelly then pointed over to a framed picture on his office wall of him walking off the court after that game, saluting the Iowa State fans with one hand and hugging young son Steven with his other arm.

"That little guy -- now he's a junior in college," Fennelly said.

Knowing when to risk it

Yes, it has been 11 years. Fennelly's and his wife Deb's oldest son, Billy, is director of basketball operations for Northwestern's women's team and is married to one of Fennelly's former players, Lyndsey Medders. The gray has taken over Fennelly's brown hair, but personality-wise, he's little changed.

He can still turn beet-red with rage when the Cyclones make silly mistakes or don't follow their game plan. People might say he's too hard verbally on his players, but they will typically say that it's only because he wants them to reach their best. He is still just as passionate, just as devastated after losses. He has never second-guessed himself about not coaching in the men's game -- even though from an X's and O's standpoint, he could do it easily.

Does any of this sound quite a lot like … Auriemma?

"For me, it's about quality of life," Fennelly said of staying in women's basketball. "I love the game, love the kids. I love the idea that you're still teaching and coaching, not maybe babysitting somebody to get to the NBA.

"I think our players are more appreciative of everything. And you want to feel like a little bit of you has impacted the growth of something. Heck, I make more money than I should make. This is something I've loved doing, and I've been very lucky to be a head coach in two places that appreciated us and were good places to live and raise a family."

Fennelly's easygoing, humorous manner with fans and media also is similar to Auriemma. They aren't close friends, but have always had a good rapport. Fennelly is close pals with UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey.

"I see Geno in recruiting and we've talked a bit in USA Basketball," Fennelly said. "He's always been very gracious. And I've known Chris forever. We go way, way back. I was on committees with her back in the day. She's the best; I love her. I was going to text her to ask her if there was a Nordstrom in Dayton, because that's where she always goes. They're both really good people and have done an amazing job there."

Fennelly, of course, had praise for the Huskies themselves, too. Asked his assessment of Maya Moore, he reached into a stack of notes on his desk.

"This is what I showed our players today," he said of a photo-copied page from UConn's guide. "See what I wrote on it?"

At the top, in magic marker, it said, "BEST ALL-AROUND PLAYER IN THE NATION."

"I mean, I am just amazed by how she plays," Fennelly said. "As competitive as she is, smart, skilled, seems like she really loves the game and is a great teammate. I think Tina Charles will be national player of the year, and probably rightly so. But they could be co-players of the year, I think."

Fennelly knows that to have even the slightest hope of beating UConn, he has to decide on a game plan and then stick to it. His goal isn't going to be, "Let's try not to get pounded."

Instead, it's, "This may not work, but it's the best chance we have."

He did that back in the 2006 Big 12 tournament when Oklahoma was the league's best team and Courtney Paris an unstoppable freshman force. Fennelly decided he had no chance to win by double-teaming her; as the No. 9 seed, he just didn't have the personnel. The plan instead was to accept that Paris was going to score big, but try to limit the rest of the Sooners.

Paris did score big -- 36 points -- but the plan almost worked. Oklahoma escaped 78-74. Last season, Fennelly made a similar decision in going against Stanford and center Jayne Appel in the Elite Eight.

"I told the kids about Jayne, 'We're going to give her 36,'" Fennelly said, then quipped, "I didn't think she'd get 46."

But she did, and Stanford won 74-53.

This year in the Big 12 tournament, with point guard Alison Lacey still out due to the effects of pneumonia, Fennelly took that approach to Oklahoma State's Andrea Riley, who scored 43 in the Cowgirls' 62-59 victory. However, Fennelly said he had no regrets about any of those game plans.

"The thing you have to risk is if it goes bad, it looks bad, and you're going to get criticized for it," he said. "I understand that, but we have to find a way to try to win the game against UConn. We don't want to just be, 'Oh, we're one of the teams they beat by less than 20.' The goal is to try to win, and to our kids' credit, they understand that."

Comparing past with present

Since it was so long ago, Fennelly said there's not much to take from that win over the Huskies in 1999 and apply to 2010 -- except one crucial thing.

"We hung around from start to finish, and I think that's the biggest thing when you play a team like that," he said. "It's like in boxing, you try to avoid being knocked out in the first round.

[+] EnlargeKelsey Bolte
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallKelsey Bolte and Iowa State play top-ranked and undefeated UConn at noon ET Sunday on ESPN.

"Against this team, you have to get back on defense and try to make them score. If they make shots, they make them. The other thing is our offense can't become their offense. They score a lot off turnovers. People get so consumed by the offensive skill sets of Maya Moore and Tina Charles, but they are just suffocating on defense.

"Great teams get a lot of credit for how they score, but they never seem to get enough credit for how they defend. I think for a team that good to play that hard on defense says a lot about their kids."

As for the notion some have suggested that UConn's excellence is a negative for women's basketball, Fennelly shook his head.

"It is disappointing if people look at it as, 'There's one dominating team and no one else is any good.' Give UConn credit for being great," he said. "It's up to other people to get better, but it is not an indictment of the entire sport. There are a lot of sports where teams or individuals go through runs and dominate. Their success should be celebrated for what it is and not looked at like only a negative for everybody else."

In order to get a shot at the Huskies, the Cyclones had to overcome a lot this season. They lost eight players from last season, including three starters. They brought in four freshmen. Lacey and junior Kelsey Bolte had to be the leaders, but Lacey has had to conclude this season ill.

Tuesday, Green Bay got off to a 10-0 lead and was ahead most of the game. But Bolte's 3-pointer at the 1:19 mark put Iowa State up 57-56, and then she and Lacey combined for three free throws. On defense, Lacey also forced a turnover by Celeste Hoewisch with four seconds left.

"I feel bad because she's probably not going to be able to finish here playing at the level that most people have seen all year," Fennelly said of Lacey. "Her timing and her shot are both a little off; she doesn't have that burst of speed. But you know, her at 50 percent is still really good for us.

"And once she gets completely healthy, she's going to help some team in the WNBA. I think she's the best player we've had whose game translates to the league, and a lot of people like her and have called about her. To her credit, she hasn't gotten too frustrated with the illness. I'm glad she was able to play in Hilton again and get this team to the Sweet 16."

Fennelly fully acknowledges the difficulty of going any further. He thinks this UConn squad definitely rivals the 2002 Huskies, who have been proclaimed by many as the best women's college team ever.

"This team doesn't have the inside depth that team had," Fennelly said. "Most people think if it was one of those fantasy things, the 2002 team would win. A lot of that is because of [Diana] Taurasi's amazing aura.

"But … I don't know. If it was a best-of-seven series, I bet it would go seven games. It would be fun to watch. I'd like to know which team Geno would take and which one Chris would take."

Fennelly, though, would choose the very group he has, underdogs that they are.

"I told our kids what they did [Tuesday] night was one of our proudest moments, for a lot of reasons," he said. "We talk a lot here about former teams and former players. I'm a big believer in tradition and keeping past players in the minds and hearts of the current ones.

"And I told them this team is now on the list of some of the really special teams here. They've done it in a different way. I don't think anybody saw this coming this year. Our seniors have been to four straight NCAA tournaments, and we're just excited we're still playing."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.