One last go-around

Iowa State travels to No. 3 Kansas in search of a big win

By Luke Manderfeld
Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily
Photo by Iowa State senior Monte Morris looks on during their game against Kansas Jan. 16 at Hilton Coliseum. The No. 2 Jayhawks defeated the Cyclones 76-72.

One last go-around

Iowa State travels to No. 3 Kansas in search of a big win

Iowa State point guard Monté Morris has been through his fair share of games at the infamous Phog Allen Fieldhouse, but he has never left with a victory.  

The prolific senior has played three games against Kansas at its home arena, losing by a combined 29 points. 

Now, Morris  — for the fourth and final time — and the rest of Iowa State (13-8, 5-4 Big 12) will travel to Lawrence, Kansas, on Saturday for a 1 p.m. game against No. 3 Kansas (20-2, 8-1 Big 12) in search of a big victory. Coach Bill Self is 206-9 at Allen Fieldhouse, and the Cyclones haven't won there since 2005. 

"It's a game where records are out the window," Morris said. "It's Iowa State and Kansas. I know those guys look at it as a big-time rivalry too. I know they'll be fired up. Hopefully, for my last go around, we can come out with a W." 

After falling to Vanderbilt last Saturday and No. 7 West Virginia on Tuesday, the Cyclones are in a precarious situation. They lack a big résumé win for the NCAA Tournament committee and will only have two games remaining this season against ranked teams — West Virginia and Baylor. 

This weekend, in order to combat some of the offensive issues that led to the two straight defeats, the Cyclones will focus on half-court offense.

Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said that lack of production is partly on him.

"Our numbers are good when we run offense," Prohm said. "I've got to get uncomfortable with these guys to where they do it. They've got to change too ... The problem is that bad shots lead to bad defense, and bad shots lead to frustration by everybody. We've got to limit that." 

Asked what he meant by making the team feel "uncomfortable," Prohm said it came down to more and more practice.

"I think it's more, 'We're going to run motion ... and we're going to run it until it looks the way I want it to look," Prohm said. "Not the way everybody else in America wants it to look. The way I want it to look. The offense that I want to see." 

While the team's shooting struggles have been primarily evident down the stretch in the past few games, guard Matt Thomas has been the outlier. He is in the midst of a three-game hot-shooting streak. 

It started against Kansas State on Jan. 24. Thomas put up seven 3-pointers (7-for-10) and was on pace to break the single-game school record of 10 after bucketing six in the first half alone. In the two games since, Thomas has shot a combined 9-for-12 from long range with 44 points. He is shooting 43.2 percent from beyond the arc, good for fourth in the Big 12. 

And he's done it all while dealing with bone spurs in his foot.

"My foot over the past week or two has been starting to feel better, so I've been able to practice most days," Thomas said. "That's part of the reason I'm feeling good." 

While Kansas' defense doesn't pop out on the stat sheet — the Jayhawks rank seventh in both 3-point and overall defense in the Big 12 — it can be a stingy one. And that's why Prohm and the rest of the team will be conscious of getting Thomas the ball. 

The Jayhawks are well on their way to a 12th Big 12 title in a row after beating No. 2 Baylor in a nail-biter Wednesday night. Morris knows Kansas point guard Frank Mason III and freshman Josh Jackson well, he said, and he has nothing but mutual respect for the program.

"I love Allen Fieldhouse, just in terms of the fan support they get," Morris said. "Win, lose or draw there, you tip your hat off there to that organization. Their staff and how they carry themselves as far as winning and tradition. I'm just happy that we get to go down there and compete in that building." 

But when game time rolls around, it will be nothing but hard-nosed competition. 

"[We're going to go with] the same mentality we had when we went to Baylor and nobody gave us a chance," Prohm said. "That's the same way I want us to feel when we get on the plane tomorrow ... I'm going to ask these guys: What's your best road win? What's it feel like? Because if you win, mark them all off the list. This one will feel better." 

Hips Don't Lie

Naz Mitrou-Long free from pain for final season

By Ryan Young
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

Hips Don't Lie

Naz Mitrou-Long free from pain for final season

Things were going well for Nazareth Mitrou-Long when he took the court at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma, on Feb. 9, 2015.

Naz and No. 14 Iowa State were taking on No. 17 Oklahoma, one of the bigger games for the Cyclones in their Big 12 Conference slate that season. Naz opened the game with a 3-pointer. He quickly followed it up with a dunk. Things were fine. It was business as usual. Naz was in the middle of his junior campaign, one in which he truly established himself as Iowa State’s premier 3-point shooter.

But that night in early February, even though the average Cyclone fan saw Naz play well, something was off. Naz subbed out of the game in his normal rotation. He approached his seat on the bench, and that’s when he knew something was wrong.

“I couldn’t sit on the bench,” Naz said. “I had to go lay down.”

Almost instantly, the national audience watching the game on ESPN’s Big Monday started criticizing him.

“Naz is having a great game, so he wants to go to the end of the bench and lay down,” someone tweeted at him.

Several more tweets and comments followed. Naz, Iowa State’s 3-point guru, looked like he was loafing around at the end of the bench. He was having a good game, so why not kick back and relax? He had earned it, right?

Wrong.

“For people to see that, they probably didn’t know why I was doing that and [were] thinking, ‘I just wanted to do that because I could do whatever I felt,’” Naz said.

“But it wasn’t that. It was just the fact that I couldn’t sit on the bench. I was very uncomfortable.”

An excruciating pain, one that had been slowly chipping away at him all season, engulfed him, forcing him to lie down at the end of the bench. It was all that he could do to catch his breath.

Naz didn’t call it quits, though. He finished the game with 14 points, the 15th time that season he finished in double figures for the Cyclones. But it was then that he knew something was truly wrong. The pain that had been jawing at him all season was making itself known.

He couldn’t ignore it any longer.

Naz Mitrou-Long wipes away a tear after Iowa State fell to Virginia in Sweet 16 at United Center in Chicago.
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

So a month later, just days after Iowa State fell to UAB in the NCAA Tournament, Naz went into surgery. Doctors repaired two torn labrums in his hips and scoped part of his hip bone. And for the next seven months, the one thing in Naz’s life that always made sense was gone.

He had to step away.

“I genuinely love this thing, man. This ball, I love this game,” Naz said. “Everything it’s done for me, it’s made my life so beautiful, man. I appreciate it.

“And to have that taken away, it hurt. It was one of the worst moments of my life.”

In the beginning

Naz grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, where he attended high school through the 10th grade. And while he didn’t care much for school at the time, there was one thing he did care about:

He wanted to play Division I basketball in the United States.

A Canadian high school student doesn’t easily accomplish that feat. Most college scouts simply aren’t looking at the basketball scene north of the border. So he left to attend Montrose Christian, a prep school in Rockville, Maryland, where he averaged 8 points and 5 assists per game. After that year, Naz transferred to Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada.

While he didn’t see the court much that year in Nevada — thanks to the stocked roster that included Anthony Bennett, Myck Kabongo, Nick Johnson and Landen Lucas, among others — his basketball game reached a new level, Naz said.

“That year was the year that I took the jump of becoming a way better player than I had been in the past,” Naz told the Daily. “These guys were 6-feet-7 or 6-feet-this, 6-feet-that. I’m looking around like, ‘Wow, this is the size of people in the NBA and in college. This is going to get me prepared.’”

It wasn’t until after the Nike Peach Jam, one of the best tournaments on the AAU circuit, that following summer that Naz started getting college offers. And once he connected with then-coach Fred Hoiberg and took his visit to Ames, his decision was made. He was a Cyclone.

“I’d never seen anything like that,” Naz told the Daily. “The athletics out here, you can’t compare to Canada. So when I saw Jack Trice and the football game, I fell in love with that.

“I wanted to leave my mark at a place I had mistaken for Ohio State. I didn’t even know there was a state of Iowa. I hadn’t known, but I wanted to know. I was so eager to know more.”

So Naz moved to a state he had never heard of and started settling in. But during his freshman campaign, his role on the team wasn’t quite what he had hoped. Naz saw action in just 18 games that year, averaging 1.4 points and 1 assist per contest. Essentially, he got scrub minutes.

He knew that going into the season. It wasn’t a shock. Naz just took what he got and ran with it.

Naz Mitrou-Long talks to coach Fred Hoiberg during a game his freshman season.
Photo by William Deaton/Iowa State Daily

“I’m a guy who it takes a little second to learn some things, but once I get it down I’m going to give my all, 110 percent to make sure I’m doing my best at it,” Naz said.

While many freshmen would have been frustrated not getting much playing time, Naz’s mom, Georgia Mitrou, said it wasn’t an issue for him.

He embraced his role.

“It wasn’t hard for him, which is weird because most kids would be like, ‘Oh no, I want to play,’” Georgia said. “His first year he accepted it. He respected the seniors so much, and he learned so much from them that for him it was just good enough to be around that group of guys, that coach, that atmosphere, and that was Naz.”

Naz’s sophomore year was better. He was filling a sixth-man role and doing well. He played in all 36 games that season, averaging 7.1 points per contest and shooting 40 percent from behind the arc.

Even though he didn’t get a lot of playing time, or even all of the recognition he may have deserved that year, Naz was doing everything he could in his role. Senior guard Matt Thomas, who was a freshman at that time, said Naz’s leadership hasn’t differed since he first met him that season.

“Ever since I’ve been around Naz he’s been a vocal leader, even as a sophomore,” Thomas said. “He was still a leader on that team because that’s just the presence that he brings to a team, and everybody respects him when he speaks up. That hasn’t changed.”

The pain that caused it all

On paper during his junior season, Naz was playing fantastic.

He started in all but one contest that year and averaged more than 10 points per game. He even hit a team-high 77 3-point buckets that season. But it wasn’t that easy. The pain in his hips was eating at him again. Georgia said this pain was nothing new for Naz.

“I want to say his hips were hurting since the age of 15,” Georgia said. “He’s always complained. He couldn’t stretch. He hurt. [It wasn’t as bad] as it was when he got older. [We] thought it was growing pains.”

Yet all through his junior season, Naz would talk to his mom about the pain that had returned.

“No, I’m OK. I can do this. I’m OK,” Naz told his mom over the phone one night.

“If you’re not feeling good, just sit out,” Georgia told him.

“No mom. I got this,” he said.

He was resilient. He refused to sit out.

“In his head, he wants to accomplish so much in so little time,” Georgia said. “Little did he know, ‘Hey, you have all the time in the world,’ in a sense.”

So he stuck it out, waiting to have the surgery until the season was over. Naz then took time off.

Seemingly recovered after his offseason break and rehab from the procedure, Naz entered his senior season making national headlines. The Cyclones were good. Led by All-American Georges Niang, Iowa State started the season ranked No. 7 in the country. While Naz looked good on paper, even going 5-of-9 from the field for 13 points in the season opener against Colorado, he was still struggling.

“I wasn’t healthy, even in the season,” Naz said. “It was something where I wasn’t supposed to play last year at all. Numbers wise, we just didn’t have the depth. I knew if I didn’t try and push and get back to play, it would hurt us in the beginning of the season.”

Georgia, who watches nearly all of Naz’s games on TV, was watching one night early that season.

“I saw him sitting on the bench. Then I saw him on the court. Then all of the sudden, I didn’t see him anywhere,” Georgia recalled. “It’s unlike Naz to be somewhere else. He’s always with his team.

“[Then] I saw him lying down on the ground in pain.”

It was like the Oklahoma game all over again. Naz couldn’t sit on the bench. He was in too much pain. That night after the game, Georgia called her son.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“I’m in so much pain,” Naz told her. “This is my senior year. I’m supposed to shine.”

“Mom,” he added, “I can’t sleep at night.”

The pain wasn’t just hurting him physically. It was killing him mentally, too.

“People don’t know that Naz didn’t sleep,” Georgia said. “He would be up half the night not feeling well in pain all the time, trying to make decisions. Every aspect of his life was affected by it.”

By the fifth and sixth games of the 2015-16 season, Naz knew he was running out of time. If he wanted to seek a medical redshirt, he couldn’t play more than eight games.

But Naz didn’t want to give up just yet.

“I knew it in my head [what I had to do], but I didn’t want to believe it,” Naz said. “I kind of knew that it was going to come to that point, but I was hoping that I would play and it would feel better to the point where, ‘Bang, that idea is gone now. Let’s keep riding the wave and let’s keep doing it.’ But you could see as the season was progressing how quick it was for me to decrease.”

Naz played in the Cy-Hawk basketball game against Iowa, Iowa State’s eighth game of the season.

Naz Mitrou-Long could barely stand up while dealing with hip surgery last season. Sometimes, Mitrou-Long was forced to lay on the bench because the pain was so severe.
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

Right after the game, he sat down with Iowa State coach Steve Prohm.

“After the Iowa game, we talked one more time, and that’s when I knew he was ready to shut it down,” Prohm said. “He just didn’t feel like he was capable of playing.”

He called the entire team over to his apartment one night and broke the news. He was stepping away.

“Everybody was over, and there was tears in that room,” Naz said. “Not only by myself, man, but Georges [Niang] was crushed.”

Prohm knew Naz was crushed, too. He watched Naz battle with this decision all season and understood how hard it was for him.

“He’s been with these guys [since the beginning],” Prohm said. “I’m sure it was really tough for him because part of him is probably thinking he’s let some people down. On the flip side, he has to make sure long term that he’s healthy and feels good. You can’t have it both ways.”

And just like that, only eight games into the season, Naz’s senior year was over.

Coach Mitrou-Long

Naz and the Cyclones were standing in the back hallway of Hilton Coliseum.

It was the ninth game of the 2015-16 season, and Iowa State was about to tip off against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. It was the first game since Naz decided to hang up his jersey for the year.

The team broke its pregame huddle. The players started to run out of the red double-doors, slapping the Iowa State mural atop the doors before stepping out into the bright lights of Hilton Coliseum.

But Naz froze.

He couldn’t do it.

It was the first time in his career that he would walk out onto the court in street clothes. It was the first time at Iowa State that he wouldn’t be an option in the game. It was the first time he would be tied down to the bench.

And he was devastated.

“I couldn’t stop crying in the locker room because it just didn’t feel right,” Naz said. “I had never walked out in just street clothes. I never redshirted or anything, so I never did that. It was a shock to me.”

Georgia, who was once again watching on TV, texted Naz after the game. He didn’t answer.

Then she FaceTimed him. Still no answer. Finally, she just left him a text.

“Call me when you’re ready to talk,” it read.

When she eventually got hold of him, Naz was still devastated.

“Mom, if this doesn’t work out for me, what am I going to do?” he asked. “I love this game. I love the connection I have with these guys. What am I going to do?”

“Naz, you know God has plans for you,” Georgia replied. “You didn’t come this far for this to be where you stop. You have to believe.”

At that point, the dynamic of the team had changed. One of its senior leaders was no longer on the court.

“As a friend, as a teammate, seeing him go down is definitely tough to see,” Thomas said. “Not having him on the court, it’s tough because he’s such a vocal leader. He traveled with us on the road, but it’s just not the same when he’s out there in uniform competing with us.”

Prohm knew that, even though the team was in a different place, he couldn’t afford to lose Naz for good. He had to do something.

“The biggest thing then was, ‘Hey, come with us. Help coach this team. Help keep these guys encouraged,’” Prohm said.

And Naz did. Once he was able to get over the initial impact of not playing, Naz’s mentality changed completely.

Naz Mitrou-Long turned into a “second coach” on the bench while he was hurt, helping out in any way he could.
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

He had become an assistant coach of sorts. Throughout the rest of the season, Naz was right there on the bench cheering on his team. He was right there in the huddles, giving tips and advice.

He embraced his new role, something he described as being an “extension of coach.”

And his team responded well.

“I think his role came to him naturally,” Georgia said. “He didn’t know what was going to happen, he just showed up and things fell into place.”

Better than ever

Throughout all of last season, Naz felt healthy at times.

Especially late in the season, Naz would be in the gym working out and he would feel like his old self.

But the consistency wasn’t there.

“There was times I felt up, but then I’d have a second practice later that week and I’d be so low,” Naz said. “I’d be so pissed off and so mad at myself, and the reality of it was this is the nature of my body at that state.”

Naz wanted to be back out there. He wanted to retake the court. He contemplated coming back, especially right before the conference tournament started.

“It went through my mind every game, honestly,” Naz said. “Every game that we were just walking out in Hilton, it never got easier. I just wasn’t used to it, and I’m not used to it.”

Vic Miller, the team’s athletic trainer, warned him about this scenario

“There are going to be days where you feel like, ‘All right, you’re ready to go back out there,’” Vic told Naz. “But you can’t do that because it’s not what’s going to be the best for your body. Rest is the key thing now.”

So that’s what he did. He rested. That entire season, Naz slowly started to get back into the gym. He said that process, though, was one of the toughest.

“You start to question if you’ll ever be back as the player you were,” Naz said. “In this game, it’s all about consistency. If you have 30 [points] one game, zero the next, win this game, lose that, you’re so up and down, you’re not really doing anything positive. You’re not taking any steps forward.”

Once Iowa State fell to Virginia in the Sweet 16, Naz took five weeks off.

He rested. And once he was ready, he retook the gym.

Prohm likes where Naz is at.

Mitrou-Long returns for his senior season as one of Iowa State’s best 3-point shooters.
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

“He’s in the gym all the time shooting,” Prohm said. “His body looks good. I think he’s in a really good place. He’s fully healthy, ready to go. Shooting it well, moving well. I think he’s at a really good place right now.”

Thomas agreed.

“Right now he’s playing the best basketball I think in his life,” Thomas said.

After a painful two seasons, Naz is finally back. The pain he has felt off and on since he was 15 years old is gone, nowhere to be found.

This is exactly where Naz wants to be.

“It was everything I had dreamed of since the day I got my surgery,” Naz said.

“When you go through things like that, you really think like, ‘Is this it?’ I put my whole life, left home young, the whole shebang, for this. And when those type of things happen, you just think, ‘Is it done?’

“When I got that consistency going again and my shot started to fall, when I started to dunk again and started to do the little things and take hustle plays without no pain, I couldn’t do nothing but thank the man upstairs for blessing me with that.”

Unbroken

Tragedies can’t deter Matt Thomas

By Austin Anderson
Matt Thomas poses for a photo at basketball media day.
Photo by Katy Klopfenstein/ Iowa State Daily

Unbroken

Tragedies can’t deter Matt Thomas

Martha Thomas didn’t understand it. Nobody in her family did.

She didn’t understand why in the middle of her shift as a nurse, her manager came to her desk and took Martha downstairs. She didn’t recognize the two cops there, or the detective who was waiting for her. She did, however, know the sheriff. He was the father of one of her son Matt’s best friends.

She also recognized the sheriff’s wife. But why was she there? Why were any of these people there?

“It just didn’t click,” Martha said.

“Your kids are fine,” were the first words anybody said. “Your kids are safe.”

Relief, but not an answer.

Martha could tell the reason everyone gathered in the room wasn’t going to be a good one. It was obvious. She could see it in their faces.

She was right.

“It was one of the worst things I’ve ever heard in my life,” Martha said. “It was awful.”

Her ex-husband and father of her three children was dead.

He shot himself.

The loss

Thirty minutes were the only thing separating Matt Thomas and the end of his first day of fifth grade. But he didn’t get to finish out the school day with his classmates.

His best friend Connor’s mom, the sheriff’s wife, was there to pick him up early. Matt didn’t understand it, but he didn’t think too much of it. He had just turned 11 less than a month earlier.

“I just thought I was going to hang out with my buddy Connor,” Matt said.

Connor’s mom took him home.

When Matt walked inside, the rest of his family was already there. The room’s energy was upbeat.

Martha could tell her kids were excited. They still had the jitters from going to their first day of school. They had new clothes, new backpacks and had seen some of the friends they hadn’t been in contact with since school let out three months ago.

Josie, his younger sister and a second grader at the time, sat right next to Martha. Tony, the oldest, was supposed to be at seventh grade football practice. Instead, he sat in the chair by himself. Matt sat by the fireplace with Sister Bridget, a nun from the family’s parish.

As soon as Martha heard the news herself, she dreaded this moment more than anything. All she could think about on the ride back to her house was how she was going to tell her children. How could she deliver news so awful that her children’s father was not only dead, but that he took his own life?

Greg Thomas battled addiction with drugs and alcohol before committing suicide on Sept. 1, 2005.

After their divorce two years earlier, Greg saw his kids every other weekend on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. As time rolled on, it became only Saturdays and Sundays, and then eventually just one day every two weeks.

Matt Thomas stands with his father, Greg, who committed suicide when Thomas was in fifth grade. Thomas was raised by his mom, Martha, and learned a rugged work ethic.
Photo by Martha Thomas

Martha told her children their father had killed himself. He was gone.

Tears instantly streamed down the boys’ faces. Tony was in his second year of middle school, Matt his final year of elementary. They knew what had happened. They knew they were never going to see their father again.

Josie was 7. Her birthday was the next day, and her dad always took her out for a birthday dinner. She didn’t cry at first but she saw her brothers sobbing. She forced out tears.

“I guess I won’t be going out with dad tomorrow night,” Josie said.

The rise

When Matt was in kindergarten, he only went to school for half a day. At 5 years old, he spent the first half of his day in class and the other half on the basketball court dribbling and getting shots up.

At that point in his life, Matt wasn’t new to basketball. He had been dribbling the ball since he was 3.

“Watching how he could handle the ball, it was like, ‘Wow,’” Martha said.

Matt Thomas has been playing basketball nearly his entire life, starting when he was three years old.
Photo by Martha Thomas

When Matt was 9, Martha put a hoop and a slab of concrete in the backyard. Matt walked around during the summer upset because the concrete didn’t extend far enough for him to shoot 3-pointers.

Martha, who scored a Dubuque Wahlert High School record 48 points when she played 6-on-6 basketball in high school, gave Matt tips such as keeping his elbow in and dipping his wrist into “the cookie jar” on the follow-through of his shot. Other than those small tips, Matt developed his shot on his own.

When middle school and high school rolled around, the one thing coaches would always say is, “We don’t mess with Matt’s shot.”

Considering Matt has made the most 3-point shots of anyone returning in the Big 12 this season, it’s safe to say leaving his shot alone was the right move.

“I think he’s the best shooter in the country,” redshirt senior Naz Mitrou-Long said. “I know he knows that. The work he puts in can back that up as well.”

From an early age, Matt’s go-to activity was basketball. Even when he was one of the smallest and youngest players on the court, one thing he could control was his work ethic.

“I’m not going to get outworked by anyone,” Matt said. “It’s kind of been like that my whole life. That’s a value my mom taught me at a young age. If I want something bad enough, I can work hard enough to achieve it.”

Everything he does is based on his basketball career. He doesn’t drink pop, watches everything he eats and what he does on the weekend.

“I’ve literally devoted almost my entire life to the game of basketball,” Matt said. “I don’t remember the last time I took a day off.”

All of the work Matt has put in led to his coach, Steve Prohm, delivering some high praise for him at basketball media day.

“[Matt] is probably as hard of a worker as anyone I’ve ever been around,” Prohm said.

Matt was 5-foot-8 and 120 pounds when he slipped on the blue and white Onalaska High School jersey for the first time. As a 15-year-old freshman on the varsity team, he wasn’t the star, but everyone in the gym knew he could shoot.

Onalaska had a road game early in his freshman year against a rival school. The game was tied late in the game and Onalaska was holding the ball for the final shot. His teammate missed the shot, the other team got the rebound and called a timeout despite being out of timeouts.

A technical foul was called with essentially no time on the clock in a tied game. Matt’s coach, in a hostile environment with the opponent’s fans nearly on top of the court, picked the freshman to step to the line and shoot the free throws.

Matt won them the game.

“The amount [of courage] that took, I was wowed by that,” said Tony, his brother and a junior on that team. “That’s when I knew he could be special.”

Matt Thomas led Onalaska High School to a State championship his junior year on his way to being one of the top recruits in the country.
Photo by Martha Thomas

It was as easy to see his shots fall in as it was to see the potential he had as soon as his body started to grow. Tony was two years older than him and hit his growth spurt between seventh and eighth grade. He stood at 6-foot-5.

As a freshman, Matt had size 13 shoes, clown feet as he called them, so he knew he was about to hit a growth spurt.

“Matt would always say to me, ‘Gosh Mom, what do you think? Do you think I’m going to grow?’” Martha said. “I would look up to heaven and say, ‘Oh, God, don’t do this to the poor kid, let him grow.’”

He finally did grow, shooting up to 6-foot-2 at the start of his sophomore year.

During that year, Onalaska was ranked No. 1 in the state of Wisconsin. The team started by winning its first 16 games of the season. Then Nick Arenz, who went on to play collegiate basketball at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, tore his ACL. Three games later, Tony, who went to play at Viterbo University, an NAIA school in La Crosse, Wisconsin, tore his ACL too. That put a lot of pressure on Matt.

He reveled in that pressure. He became a star.

“Matt literally carried the team,” Tony said. “He would score what seemed like 30 points every game when he was getting double-teamed.”

His first scholarship offer came from Northern Iowa after his freshman year. More mid-majors followed before schools from the major conferences started giving him offers.

“There were times I would be worried because Matt wasn’t home yet and he should’ve been,” Martha said. “Then I would look out and see him talking on the phone to coaches in the driveway.”

Then-Cyclones assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger was the guy Iowa State had constantly talking to Matt. He attended Matt’s high school games, and Iowa State offered Matt a scholarship his sophomore year.

In the end, it came down to two schools, Iowa State and Virginia. Virginia’s head coach, Tony Bennett, played collegiate basketball in Wisconsin and told Matt he would be a perfect fit in Virginia’s system, which thrives off players who can shoot and play defense.

Matt Thomas runs on the court of Pepsi Center in Denver at the NCAA Tournament against Little Rock on March 19. Thomas made 16 points, the 37th double-digit point total of his career. Iowa State won 78-61.
Photo by Lani Tons/ Iowa State Daily

But it was too far from home.

“It was a gut feeling,” Matt said. “I felt like this was the right place.”

Matt led Onalaska to the state basketball championship his junior year, the same year he started hearing comparisons to his future coach, Fred Hoiberg.

It’s an easy comparison to make. Both are 6-foot-4 shooting guards who grew up in the Midwest. They both chose Iowa State over more prestigious programs and both have two of the sweetest shooting strokes to grace Iowa State’s campus in the history of the program.

Matt was the highest-ranked player coming out of high school who Hoiberg ever recruited, according to ESPN. Better than all-time great Georges Niang and this season’s preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Monté Morris.

The only difference in the comparisons is the Iowa State faithful compared the expectations of a 19-year-old freshman who had never donned the cardinal and gold jersey to a career of one of the greatest, most beloved players in the history of the program.

“It’s definitely humbling getting compared to him,” Matt said. “Coming here as a freshman, you want to make a name for yourself. I just wanted to be the best me I could be.

“I didn’t necessarily like getting compared to him, but that’s something I didn’t have control over. It was definitely tough when people expected you to play like Fred did his senior year when you’re a freshman. It’s just kind of unrealistic to try and fill those shoes when I had never even played in the Big 12 at all.”

Another loss

The night Greg Thomas died, the Thomas family already had friends and neighbors at their door, providing comfort, food and support. Martha had three active kids, and she raised them on her own.

There were nights Josie, Matt and Tony would all have three different activities they had to attend, and there was no way Martha could get them there by herself.

She needed help, and the communities of Onalaska and LaCrosse were there for her.

Matt’s best friend Dustin’s family was there for him. Matt spent weekends in northern Wisconsin at Dustin’s family’s cabin.

Dustin’s dad, Todd, filled a lot of the void that Matt’s dad wasn’t able to fill. He took him to practices and games and was the father figure Matt didn’t have after fifth grade.

“He was the No. 1 father figure in my life,” Matt said.

Matt was playing in an AAU tournament in Milwaukee the summer before his senior year. His team had just advanced to the championship game when he went out to the car to get a Gatorade and something to eat.

His mom was waiting for him. She had news reminiscent of Matt’s first day of fifth grade.

The news was about Dustin’s dad, Todd.

He had drowned.

Martha gave Matt a choice, should they stay or should they make the six-hour drive up to the cabin to be there for Dustin.

“There was nothing we could do at the cabin,” Martha said. “Matt knew he had to be there for his friend. There was just no question that we were going.”

It’s how you respond

Martha Thomas woke up to a text. It was from Fred Hoiberg. She knew something was up but she didn’t know what. She tried to get hold of Matt but she couldn’t. She was scared, she didn’t know what had happened.

So she went for a walk.

She had her phone in her hand as she passed neighboring houses. The phone rang.

It was Matt.

He had asked if she had heard what happened. She hadn’t.

Matt had left a party in the summer after his freshman year at Iowa State. He had a couple drinks but didn’t think much of it. He had driven home lots of times after a couple of drinks; he knew his limits.

Flashing lights lit up the rearview mirror.

He had been pulled over for a broken taillight. He spent the next 12 hours in jail. He had gotten an O.W.I.

“I feel like I let her down,” Matt said. “I feel like I let a lot of people down. The community of Onalaska helped raise me. Everyone was there for me during times of adversity. A lot of those people look up to me. I feel like I let them down. My teammates, Iowa State, everybody.”

For the first month or two after that, every time Matt was out in public he was self-conscious.

“People look at you one way and you think they’re judging you or they’re thinking lower of you,” Matt said. “I just hated that.”

The hardest part was calling his mom the next morning.

When Martha heard the news from Matt, she started saying, “What were you thinking? I can’t believe you would do this.”

But then she stopped.

“What am I doing,” she asked herself. “The kid learned from it the second it happened. He needs understanding and that you’re there for him. I was mean mom for about two minutes, then everything changed.”

Matt has gone to different schools in the area and talked about the dangers of drinking and driving after his arrest. He gave up drinking for a year.

“Something we’ve talked about is,” Martha said, “it’s really not what happens to you in life, it’s how you respond to it.”

Unbroken

Matt came home one day the summer after his sophomore year and pulled up the movie “Unbroken” on demand. He watched it with his mom in the living room.

The movie is the story of Louis Zamperini, who tirelessly trains to represent the United States in track at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. According to the synopsis, during his training, he learns to become resilient and disciplined; his brother’s words of advice, “If you can take it, you can make it,” push him to overcome any adversity.

“[The movie] was awful,” Martha said. “I sat there and watched it and thought, ‘Why am I watching this, it’s the most frustrating movie?’”

Matt poses for a picture with his brother Tony, far left, sister Josie, middle left, and mom Martha, far right in “Team Luke” shirts, in support of Matt’s cousin Luke who was diagnosed with liver cancer.
Photo by Martha Thomas

She could see the similarities between the movie and Matt’s life.

The adversity he faced seemed to just keep coming back.

Matt lost his father at 11 years old, but he didn’t grow cold. He embraced the love he received from his community.

He then lost his second father in what appeared to be a freak accident. He drove six hours to just be with his friend.

He arrived at Iowa State, and the coach who recruited him, Otzelberger, left for another coaching position at Washington. The next year, the man he was constantly compared to left for the NBA. But Matt stayed.

He got benched on a top-25 team 14 games into his freshman year after just one loss. But he didn’t quit.

He paled in comparison to the expectations he was presented with when he arrived on campus. But he didn’t grow hostile toward the man he was compared to.

He was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. He said the arrest was “meant to be.” He now shares his story in hopes of saving even one kid’s life.

He struggled more in his sophomore season than he had in the rest of his life combined.

“If we missed a shot we were getting pulled [early in our careers],” Mitrou-Long said. “Not because of anything on us but because we were just that loaded.”

After Prohm came in, instead of benching Matt after a missed shot, he begged him to shoot again, Matt came out as a junior and had the best season of his collegiate career.

“A lot of things could have broke him,” Martha said.

But they didn’t.

After all, it’s really not what happens to you in life, it’s how you respond.

A Mother's Love

What Drives Deonte Burton

By Luke Manderfeld
Photo by Josh Newell/Iowa State Daily

A Mother's Love

What Drives Deonte Burton

Deonte Burton didn’t smile anymore.

During his sophomore basketball season at Marquette in fall 2014, options weighed on his mind.

Just four years earlier, Deonte’s mother, Barbara Malone, discovered she had breast cancer. After a lengthy fight, the cancer started to recede in 2012, but it returned in early 2014. By fall, the prognosis was bleak. She had about a month to live.

Deonte contemplated giving up basketball, the game he once loved. He hadn’t found joy in it for a couple of years. He was sleepwalking.

“It was like going to sleep, waking up and doing something, but you can’t really remember what you did,” Deonte said. “It was like basketball wasn’t basketball anymore.”

He called his older sister, Nicole Grafton. She could tell he was hurting. He was talking nonsense, she remembered. He wanted to quit basketball, get a regular job and live at home. He just couldn’t play basketball anymore.

“I could get a raise and find a good job,” he told her.

“Mama doesn’t want you to stop,” Nicole replied. “Remember what she told you. She always wants you to continue.”

So he did.

A powerful woman

Deonte hardly got a break.

Growing up in north Milwaukee as the youngest of seven children — six boys and one girl — he routinely found himself on the receiving end of jokes. It was partly his fault, Nicole remembered, because he used to fall asleep before anyone else.

“He was an easy target,” Nicole said.

One night, Deonte was jolted awake by his siblings.

“Deonte, mama wants you. Hurry up!” they shouted. Deonte sprinted into the kitchen to his mother’s side.

“What are you doing? What is that on your face?” Barbara said as she started to laugh. Deonte’s face was covered in makeup, and his lips were outlined by red lipstick.

It didn’t compare to the redness that filled his cheeks with embarrassment. His siblings laughed as he tried to wipe it away.

Barbara was certainly the playful type. She used to dress Deonte like two of his older brothers, Omar and Demario, so they almost looked like triplets. She never missed an opportunity to crack a joke. But she was also a powerful woman, which was directly reflective of her appearance. Her wavy — sometimes straightened — burgundy hair just reached the top of her broad shoulders. She was heavyset, but she was also tall, almost 6 feet.

Photo by Nicole Grafton

“She could do anything a man could do,” Nicole said.

She was flamboyant and opinionated. Whenever Deonte took the court in high school, he expected to hear her voice rise above the crowd. It would’ve been hard to tell she didn’t know much about basketball while she barked suggestions onto the hardwood.

“I warned some of my teammates, ‘You’re going to hear my mother. She’s pretty loud,’” Deonte said through a chuckle.

She also was giving. North Milwaukee was much like other inner cities, where drugs and violence roamed the streets. But Barbara welcomed rather than turned away. Deonte’s house boasted five bedrooms and a basement for the kids to play in. Compared to the rest of the block, the house was almost like a mansion. Barbara treated it as such.

When Deonte was little, the house was dubbed the “Red Cross House” because Barbara never turned away a person in need. If one of Deonte’s siblings had a friend in need — whether it be a place to stay, some clothes or food — Barbara opened her doors.

Sometimes, Nicole would take exception to her mother’s generosity.

“Why are you always giving them our clothes and all your stuff?” Nicole would ask.

“Just be quiet. They need this,” Barbara would respond.

The other children didn’t dare question it.

A chunky kid no more

Everybody told Deonte he was chunky when he was a kid.

“My family said it was just baby fat,” Deonte said with a laugh.

That size lent itself to a career in football. But in the sixth grade, Deonte was about to give up football, the sport he predominantly played until that point, and stick with basketball, a sport he had played since he was a kid.

“He was always playing basketball, even as a kid,” said Deonte’s father, Charles Burton, who separated with Barbara when Deonte was 11. “He always had a basketball in his hand.”

Deonte’s family was a sports family, but it didn’t focus on one. Most of Deonte’s older brothers boxed and played football, although they still played pickup basketball at nearby parks and gyms. While the family was full of pranksters, there was more than enough competitive spirit to go around. Deonte, Omar and Demario played pickup basketball, and it tested Deonte. Omar was faster and taller than Deonte. Demario was a better defender.

It wasn’t until middle school that the rest of the family realized how good Deonte was at basketball. Barbara and Charles didn’t attend Deonte’s games when he was a youngster because of his team’s frequent travel and their own financial troubles.

Barbara didn’t even realize how good Deonte was at first. She knew her children were gifted at sports, so it didn’t faze her when she heard a few people buzz about Deonte’s skills.

Deonte Burton was a “chunky kid” at a young age. But he grew into his size and became a nationally renowned big man.
Photo by Max Goldberg/Iowa State Daily

Deonte’s basketball career and national exposure didn’t take off until his freshman year at Milwaukee-Vincent High School. People in malls approached Barbara and Nicole to laud them for Deonte’s skills. The only problem was Barbara had hardly seen him play.

“She was like, ‘We should be going to some of those games,’” Nicole said. “And I was like, ‘I’ve been telling you that, duh.’”

Deonte wasn’t a fan of his parents attending his games at first. He struggled while they were in attendance. Eventually, Deonte warmed up to it. Barbara quickly became Deonte’s biggest fan.  She brought food and drinks to Deonte’s team, and her encouraging — and sometimes critical — voice frequently ricocheted off the high school gym walls.

Deonte’s basketball career took off at that time. After an impressive year at Milwaukee-Vincent on the varsity team, Deonte was looking for other opportunities. He wanted a bigger challenge and transferred to Brewster Academy, a private school in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, for his sophomore year.

The school had a knack for producing NBA players and housed former Cyclone Melvin Ejim. Deonte played with eight future Division I players while he averaged 6 points per game in that season. During that sophomore season, Barbara discovered a lump in her breast. It turned out to be breast cancer.

Deonte couldn’t live more than 1,000 miles away from Barbara, not while the the rest of his family was at home taking care of her. So he returned home for his junior season and attended Milwaukee-Vincent for his last two years of high school.

His college basketball stock rose.

Deonte Burton is known for his monstrous dunks. Against Sioux Falls on Nov. 6, Deonte threw down this windmill dunk.
Photo by Max Goldberg/Iowa State Daily

Deonte averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds and helped his team finish 17-7 overall in his junior year.

In his senior season, Deonte impressed even more. He earned third team all-state honors by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a McDonald’s All-American nomination by putting up 17.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.

Scholarship offers started to pour in during his first two years of high school. He received offers from Iowa State and Marquette in his freshman season in high school. Clemson, Illinois and Maryland also expressed interest.

But the offer from Marquette gained his attention. At the beginning of his junior season, Barbara was in a full fight with cancer. Marquette, located in Milwaukee, was just a short bus ride away from home. He could be closer to his mother while playing basketball at a Division I program.

He took his official visit to Marquette at the beginning of his junior year. It only took him a day to decide. He verbally committed on Sept. 9, 2011.

That chunky kid had grown into his size. He stood at about 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds — a body perfect for his original sport — and his “baby fat” had given way to muscle. He was now a nationally renowned big man.

The struggle

Barbara hardly got sick. So when the family found out she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, there was more than shock. It was disbelief.

Deonte’s reaction was to take to the computer. He spent late nights researching anything he could about the sickness: treatments, prognoses and other stories. At first, the research gave him some kind of comfort that he couldn’t get anywhere else — even from his own family.

“I didn’t know how to react,” Deonte said. “I really dived into understanding.”

His understanding was that it could be beat. He didn’t spend his days moping or worried about the future. He looked ahead with optimism.

After leaving Marquette, Deonte Burton was forced to sit out a year before he could play for the Cyclones.
Photo by Seanna Johnson

“It’s not always a death sentence,” he said.

Deonte returned home and to Vincent for his junior season to take care of his mother. While Deonte and his family continued to look after her, Barbara was struggling. She wouldn’t allow her children to be pessimistic, though. She didn’t allow them to cry when she was around. She only allowed good thoughts.

But the cancer was taking its toll. She struggled to get through chemotherapy. She still attended Deonte’s games, but not with the same regularity and certainly without the same enthusiasm.

Barbara’s struggles reached rock bottom during Deonte’s junior season of high school.

She tried to take her own life.

Deonte doesn’t remember how he heard the news; he only remembers rushing to the hospital to be by his mother’s side. Stuffed with tubes and plugged to wires, Barbara couldn’t speak. She communicated with a white board. The dry erase marker served as her voice, and her persona still shined through. She still cracked jokes. She still didn’t let her children cry.

That was her lowest point, Deonte remembered.

Deonte also remembered how she bounced back from that event. At that point, Barbara weighed about 160 pounds, a dramatic reduction from her previous frame. During Deonte’s senior year, Barbara was in remission.

She was walking every day, eating healthy and seemed to be in good spirits. She was back to the old Barbara. Between the continuing chemotherapy, she continued to attend Deonte’s games.

Deonte left for Marquette while Barbara was recovering and played in all 32 games in his freshman season, averaging 6.9 points and 2.2 rebounds per contest with his mother in the stands for most of the home games.

But the family was still cautious about the future. A cloud loomed as Barbara continued to recover. The doctors warned: “If the cancer comes back, it’ll be 10 times harder.”

It did.

While Deonte was at Marquette, the cancer came back full force. At first, the family thought it was side-effects left over from chemotherapy. Barbara insisted it was something more. Nicole took Barbara to the hospital again and again, only to be turned away each time. But Barbara was adamant.

“It came to a point where she was like coming back that same night, and she kept saying there was something wrong,” Nicole said.

The doctors found it, but it had spread all over Barbara’s body. She was put on eight different types of chemotherapy, but they failed to slow the quickly spreading sickness. The number grew to 18 different treatments. Still no luck.

While Barbara was struggling to do daily duties, the family implemented shifts to take care of her. But, just like the first time, Barbara found it difficult to continue. In the middle of 2014, Barbara gathered the children, along with some friends and parishioners from her church, into the family’s living room.

She wanted to stop fighting the cancer. She wanted to live the rest of her life — no matter how long she had left — without the constant battling. She turned the conversation over to a doctor. He explained that if Barbara stopped chemotherapy, she would have about a month to live.

Deonte continued to attend school at Marquette, maintaining a GPA above 3.0, and practicing with the team, but he was still forced to face the inevitable. On a morning run, Deonte broke down, crying. He couldn’t go on. His mother’s impending death hit him. He spent the rest of the day laying lying in bed with Barbara, talking about life.

Barbara was put into hospice care while her health dwindled. She didn’t want to die in the house and leave behind bad memories. The children still took turns taking care of her, but they all knew what was coming. It was about keeping her comfortable at that point.

On Oct. 6, 2014, Barbara succumbed to the sickness she had spent four years fighting. Her death fell within a 15-minute window when none of her children watched over her.

“She didn’t want us to see her die,” Deonte said.

A weight lifted

After Deonte spent his first two seasons at Marquette, constantly worrying about his mother’s sickness, memories littered the Milwaukee streets. She was gone physically, but she still lived in little places around town.

Deonte thought of places he and Barbara would go out to eat. He couldn’t remember the name of a restaurant, so he picked up his phone and tried to call her to get a reminder. Nobody answered. He took to writing to cope. He turned to poetry to explain and grieve.

But Deonte wanted to flee those memories. He wanted to find his love of basketball again. He needed to get away.

Marquette basketball was facing a change of its own. Coach Brent “Buzz” Williams, who now coaches at Virginia Tech, left the program and was replaced with Steve Wojciechowski. Williams was integral in getting Deonte to Marquette. Williams also helped Deonte with his mother, calling Barbara to check in while she was sick. Deonte, who was rooted in faith, found solace in Williams’ faith-based coaching style.

Deonte also isn’t the type to accept someone in his life at the drop of the hat. His mother showed him a Bible verse — Matthew 7:15 — early in Deonte’s basketball career.

“Beware of false prophets,” it read. “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.”

Deonte had taken that verse to heart. It still linked him to his mother. He was skeptical of the new coaching staff because that’s how he was raised. He felt like he couldn’t open up to them.

He wanted to leave Marquette and leave all of his memories and struggles in the rearview mirror. But the way he broke it to his team wasn’t the best.

Deonte was unsure how to talk to coaches. He went straight to the athletic director, who told him to talk to his coaches, but by the time he did, the athletic director had already spread the word.

“If I could do it again, I would gather all the coaches and players and tell them my reasoning of why I’m leaving and why I need to leave,” Deonte said.

Now Deonte had to figure out his next destination.

Ever since high school, Deonte wanted to attend Iowa State, Nicole remembered, but he was bound to his home by his mother’s sickness. Deonte called Nicole one day.

“How would you feel about me leaving here and going to Iowa State?” Deonte asked.

“Get [going] and get your stuff together,” Nicole told him. “Get over there. If you’re not feeling well here, you have to go find you. You have to find the new you.”

Deonte transferred to Iowa State in December 2014.

Deonte Burton wears purple and pink shoes with “Love you” and “Miss you” written in marker on the back to honor his mother, who died from breast cancer in 2014.
Photo by Max Goldberg/Iowa State Daily

But Deonte was still conscious of the “ravenous wolves,” even at Iowa State.

Because of NCAA transfer rules, Deonte was forced to sit out for the second half of the 2014-15 season and the beginning of the 2015-16 season.

There was a new coach, Steve Prohm, roaming the halls at the Sukup Basketball Complex. Deonte still had his guard up. It wasn’t until Deonte started playing again that he really started to connect with his teammates.

Deonte became eligible to play for Iowa State in December 2015, but he never found his groove on the court. He averaged 9.7 points and 3.9 rebounds while averaging 18.8 minutes per game.

Now, almost a year and a half after Deonte transferred to Iowa State, he feels comfortable around his teammates. It happened during the summer, when Deonte spent countless hours in the gym alongside fellow senior Naz Mitrou-Long and other teammates.

“He’ll be the first one to say that he’s as close to us as any team that he’s been on,” Mitrou-Long said. “I feel that way. He opens up about jokes. He’s our brother. We’re his brothers. We’ve grown together.”

Deonte and his family are still as close as ever. The first time they visited him in Ames, the hotel they stayed at put them all in separate rooms. It left the family uncomfortable. They had all been through so much and were so close that sleeping in separate bedrooms was almost unbearable.

So the next time the family came to Ames, they set up air mattresses around Deonte’s apartment and slept right next to one another.

“It was like a campsite,” Nicole said.

He felt right at home.

It was as if a weight was lifted off his shoulders. He could play basketball, care-free and surrounded by “brothers.” He no longer had to worry about his mother’s sickness. She was in a better place.

Now Deonte smiles again.

Men's Newcomers

New Players

By Jack MacDonald

Men's Newcomers

New Players

Solomon Young

Height: 6’8’’
Weight: 240 pounds
Position: Forward
Hometown: Sacramento, California
High School: Sacramento
Recruiting Class Ranking: 3-star recruit

HS/College Career:  

  • Led Sacramento High School to 30-2 record as a senior
  • Averaged 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks as a senior
  • Chose Iowa State over Washington, Arizona State and Nevada

Donovan Jackson

Height: 6’2’’
Weight: 175 pounds
Position: Guard
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
High School: Pius XI
Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 7 JUCO player according to 247sports.com

HS/College Career:

  • Averaged 15.3 points and 2.9 assists for injuring his wrist at Iowa Western C.C.
  • Team was 17-2 before his injury and was second in scoring his freshman season
  • All-state and all-conference as a senior after averaging 18 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists
  • Lost in 2012 state semifinals to Matt Thomas’ team

Ray Kasongo

Height: 6’9’’
Weight: 230 pounds
Position: Forward
Hometown: Toronto. Ontario
High School: Pikeville, Kentucky/Phase 1 Academy
Recruiting Class Ranking: 3-star recruit

HS/College Career:

  • Saw limited time in 22 games at Tennessee during his one season
  • Played one season at College of Southern Idaho and averaged 6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks
  • Played AAU basketball with Grassroots Canada

Merrill Holden

Height: 6’8’’
Weight: 224 pounds
Position: Forward
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
High School: Lincoln (Neb.)
Recruiting Class Ranking: N/R

HS/College Career:

  • Grad transfer after playing two seasons at Louisiana Tech
  • Averaged 8.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.1 blocks as a senior
  • Played one season at Pratt Community College and averaged 5.8 points  

Darrell Bowie

Height: 6’8’’
Weight: 218 pounds
Position: Forward
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
High School: La Jolla Prep (Calif.)/Wauwatosa
Recruiting Class Ranking: 2-star recruit out of high school

HS/College Career:

  • Led Northern Illinois in field goal percentage and free throws made as a freshman
  • Ranked 11th in MAC rebounds as a sophomore
  • Had shoulder surgery in his final season at Northern Illinois

Jakolby Long

Height: 6’5’’
Weight: 208 pounds
Position: Guard
Hometown: Mustang, Oklahoma
High School: Mustang
Recruiting Class Ranking: 4-star recruit and second-ranked player in Oklahoma

HS/College Career:

  • Averaged 24.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists as a senior
  • Named Oklahoma Boys Coaches Association Player of the Year award in Class 6A
  • Won Class 6A title as a junior
  • Picked Iowa State over offers from Oklahoma State, Georgia and Missouri

STUUUUU

The People’s Player

By Ryan Young
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

STUUUUU

The People’s Player

He’s been spotted around Ames, Iowa, during the last several years.

A 6-foot-10 white guy is hard to miss.

And in spring 2015, that’s all Stuart Nezlek was: a 6-foot-10 kinesiology student.

But Stuart wanted more. So he took a chance.

He emailed Iowa State basketball coach Fred Hoiberg.

“Dude, my name is Stuart. I’m 6-foot-10. I just wanted to play basketball for you,” Stuart wrote, more or less.

“Yeah, come by,” Hoiberg replied later. “We’ll talk.”

So they did. Stuart went in to meet with Hoiberg and the coaching staff. Then, a few meetings and practices later, it worked out. Stuart was on the team.

From there, the legend was born. Stuart went from an average college student to a fan favorite overnight.

Instead of sitting in the stands at Hilton Coliseum, Stuart is now the big guy sitting at the end of the bench who fans go crazy for when he gets in at the end of games.

“STUUUUUUU,” fans scream out when he gets on the court — which only happens for about a minute each game, if he’s lucky.

But that doesn’t matter. He’s just happy to be back on the court again.

“Being able to [play at] a school like this that is in the top three conferences in the U.S. and in the Top-25 in the country, it just goes to show that if you really want to do something, there is never anything or anyone that can stop you,” Stuart said.

It’s all about basketball

Stuart started playing basketball as a young child in River Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. While he never played too seriously, he fell in love with the game. Simply put, it was fun.

By the time Stuart began high school, he started to take the game more seriously. He joined the basketball team his freshman year and continued to play his sophomore season.

His junior and senior seasons, though, didn’t go so smoothly. Stuart transferred to Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois. He said he and his new coach didn’t see eye to eye, limiting his playing time significantly. He was still a member of the team, just never really got to see time on the court.

“It was tough just knowing that I was better than the people who were playing above me, and basically because of how it was set up I just never got the opportunity [to play],” Stuart said.

As Stuart approached the end of his senior year, he knew one thing: He wanted to keep playing basketball.

His coach, though, wasn’t so sure.

“The highest level of basketball you would ever play is a small Division III school,” his coach told him. “A liberal arts college, somewhere that was never known for sports.”

That wasn’t good enough for Stuart.

He looked his coach dead in the face: “No. I can do better than that.”

So he started looking around at schools where he could play, but still get the education he wanted.

He didn’t have any scholarship offers to play basketball anywhere, so he landed at Iowa State. He liked the school, and it was one of the only schools to which he was accepted.

But basketball was off the table. At least it was at the start.

Before Stuart even set foot in Ames, he sent an email to Micah Byars, the head of Iowa State basketball operations.

Stuart explained his situation, that he didn’t play much basketball in high school, but wanted to walk onto the Iowa State team.

Stuart’s email intrigued Byars, so he set up a meeting. When he looked at the roster that season, though, the two just couldn’t make it work. The roster was already full.

Soon enough, though, Prohm decided to honor Stuart’s spot on the team. He could stay.

“It was sort of strange in that Stuart was getting a spot on what would have been Hoiberg’s squad just as Fred was departing to coach the Bulls, so there was a period of uncertainty when Steve Prohm took over as head coach,” his dad, George, said. “That had to be a difficult thing, taking someone else’s squad with no real input into choosing your own players, but I was delighted when all the dust settled and Stuart was still there.”

While it was fairly straightforward for Stuart to join the team, successfully earning a spot on a Division I basketball team is no easy task. Only 15 players can make the roster, leaving just two or three spots, maximum, for walk-ons.

Byars, who handles most of the walk-ons initially in the process, said he gets emails daily from students wanting to join the team.

“The majority of them, to be honest with you, are students at Iowa State that enjoy basketball and then they decide that they want to be a part of it,” Byars said. “But I don’t know that most of them know what all that entails. A lot of those folks, when they realize what the entire process entails, they usually back away.”

“He actually came in and sat on my couch,” Byars said. “At that time we had definitely one, may two walk-ons. Then it kind of dissolved into, ‘Oh, well maybe next year.’”

So Stuart just adapted to college like any other freshman.

But just because he couldn’t get on the team didn’t mean Stuart quit playing basketball. He started regularly playing pickup basketball at Lied Recreation Athletic Center.

“I’d mainly go there to play basketball for two to three hours every day, just to pass the time and work out at the same time,” Stuart said. “I was just enjoying playing basketball.”

But Stuart hurt himself by the end of his freshman year. He tore his labrum in his shoulder and was forced to undergo surgery. He then took the next fall to rehab his shoulder until he could play basketball at Lied again.

And when he finally got to that point, Stuart had a thought.

It was time for him to give walking on another shot. That’s when he sent the email to Hoiberg.

“I was actually in [Hoiberg’s] house when he got that email,” said guard Naz Mitrou-Long, who had just finished his sophomore year. “It was interesting to hear because it sounded like a dude who was dedicated and wanted to be on the team. I thought he might be able to come in here and start by that email.”

Once they read the email, Byars and Hoiberg decided to bring Stuart in for another conversation.

This time, things went much more smoothly.

“We brought him in, sat [him] on the couch again,” Byars said. “Then he met with Fred, came down and did a workout with one of our graduate assistants and our managers, and next thing you know he’s on the team.”

Stuart was just as surprised as the rest of them.

“I didn’t really know how to take it at first,” Stuart said. “[I kept thinking,] ‘Is this real? Y’all aren’t yanking my chain?’

“Once I started doing workouts with everyone and it was solidified, I was like, ‘Oh, this is like high school only better.’”

Soon, though, a dilemma arose. Stuart joined Hoiberg’s team. But Hoiberg departed Ames to become the head coach of the Chicago Bulls.

When Steve Prohm was hired to replace him just a few months later, Stuart didn’t know if Prohm would keep him on the team.

But Stuart’s email to Byars stood out. When Stuart told Byars the story of his high school basketball problems, that’s what really made him stand out.

“When you read that, the candid nature of that is just funny,” Byars said. “So that kind of led to another email and a call. When he showed back up, it had been a year or two since I saw him, and I told coach Hoiberg that I saw this kid [before].

“It was just a funny story, so it kind of caught my eye. I thought it was interesting, and coach Hoiberg thought it was funny as well.”

Stuart Nezlek cheers from the bench during a game last season.
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

An instant fan favorite

Almost as quick as he had joined the team, Stuart’s fame around Ames grew.

He started appearing in his newfound teammates’ Snapchat stories and other social media posts, and people started to recognize him.

By the time his first Hilton Madness — Iowa State’s version of a preseason “Midnight Madness” — rolled around, Stuart was well known.

He just didn’t know it yet.

“When Hilton Madness came, when I heard ‘STUUU,’ I really thought it was BOOs,” Stuart said. “Literally for the first three games I thought it was ‘boo.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is lovely.’

“But when I finally listened, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a S. That’s Stuart.’”

Stuart doesn’t get much playing time. Last season he played in seven games for a total of nine minutes, dropping just two points on the season.

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t putting in the work in practices. Mitrou-Long said it’s far from it.

“He works. He gets it in in the weight room. He puts in that overtime,” Mitrou-Long said. “He’s a very educated dude. And he’s funny. If you’re talking some smack to him, he’s coming back to you.”

Naz Mitrou-Long calls Stuart Nezlek, a fan favorite in Ames, Iowa, his son.
Photo by Katy Klopfenstein/Iowa State Daily

The fact that Stuart can talk some “smack” proves that he isn’t just a footnote to the rest of the team.

He’s most definitely a part of it.

“This was destiny for him,” Mitrou-Long said. “He was meant to be with us. He keeps the character high on this team. He’s just a great dude.

“He fits in well. A Stuart-less Cyclone team would be a little weird. His presence is definitely felt when he comes in. That’s my son.”

Prohm, who had nothing to do with Stuart’s arrival on the team, has felt his impact on the team.

While it’s not traditionally what you think of, Prohm said his impact is still incredibly important.

“All the guys like him. He knows a lot of people on campus. [He’s] got a great personality,” Prohm said. “I think the biggest thing that he provides for us is that he can be a great encourager, be into the game on the bench and on the sidelines and in practice, keep people loose and enjoying it and having fun.”

Stuart knows he won’t have a major impact on the court this season. That isn’t a surprise.

But that doesn’t matter to him. He’s just here to play basketball.

“I just want to keep getting better,” Stuart said. “That’s all I can do and provide for the team in anyway I can.”

Oh, and there is one other goal of his.

“Hopefully [we] beat Kansas, on the road and here,” Stuart said. “That would be great.”

Stuart is set to graduate from Iowa State this spring with a degree in kinesiology. As of now his plan is to continue his education, hopefully attending graduate school to get his master’s degree.

He isn’t sure where he wants to attend yet but is still weighing his options. Should he attend graduate school, Stuart would have one year of eligibility left to play basketball.

“I guess I’ve just looked at a bunch of schools based on what they offer for school, and basketball is just secondary,” Stuart said. “It’s still there, but it’s just not there as much as school is.”

Regardless of where he ends up, Stuart is living a dream that very few college students ever get to experience.

“This is an unbelievable experience for Stuart,” Prohm said. “He’s playing Big 12, high, high-major basketball, traveling, eating at the best places, staying at the best hotels, playing the best competition. This is life-changing for him.”

There are even times where Stuart can’t describe the feeling.

Just three years ago, Stuart was an average fan, cheering on the Cyclones from the stands in Hilton Coliseum.

Now, he’s a member of that team that thousands of fans around the country cheer for every year.

He made it.

“To go from there to sitting on the bench, it’s a totally different atmosphere,” Stuart said. “Instead of going to cheer for people, people were cheering for me. Just the whole switching from being a fan to being a part of something that people cheer for, I couldn’t describe it.”

Shouldering the Load

Monté Morris returns for more

By Luke Manderfeld
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

Shouldering the Load

Monté Morris returns for more

Monté Morris buried his head into his mother’s shoulder, but there was nothing he could think about besides the pain in his own shoulder.

“Why can’t I come back from this injury?” he asked on the verge of tears.

It was March 2016. The Cyclones had just lost 79-76 to Oklahoma in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament. Monté, a rock for the Cyclones all season, could only muster an uncharacteristic five points and two assists.

But there was a deeper problem.

Monté was hurting.

“He was hurt more than a lot of people know,” said Latonia Morris, Monté’s mother. “It was hard to watch him push through that.”

The Cyclones played at Kansas about a week earlier. At the end of the game, with the Cyclones trailing, Monté jumped into Jayhawk guard Frank Mason III, who was jumping backward into Monté to try and alter his shot. Monté’s shooting shoulder — his right arm — collided with Mason’s shoulder blade.

Monté Morris draws a foul against Frank Mason III at Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. Morris hurt his shoulder on the play, causing him pain for the rest of the 2015-16 season.
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

Monté let out a scream.

The team called it a shoulder strain after the game, and the team’s trainer Vic Miller thought it would pass with time. Monté thought it was something more.

Going into the game against Oklahoma, Monté’s arm didn’t get better. To make the pain more manageable, the team trainers shot his shoulder with painkillers.

They missed the spot. They gave him a shot again. Missed again. Monté felt funny.

The numbness extended down to the edge of his fingertips. He couldn’t feel the basketball. He tried to dribble, but his signature touch was gone.

“That whole Oklahoma game, I was all messed up,” Monté said.

The shoulder injury didn’t go away before the NCAA Tournament, and it lasted longer than fans knew, affecting his decisions along the way.

But the injury was just one aspect of Monté’s crazy junior season.

The biggest decision of his life

After the noise reverberating inside Hilton Coliseum became a distant ambient sound in the back of his head, Monté had to make one of the biggest decisions of his career.

It was January of his junior season, and Iowa State had just won its biggest game of the season so far — an 85-72 thriller on ESPN’s Big Monday against then-No. 4 Kansas. The Cyclones overcame a seven-point deficit at halftime, and Monté finished one of the best games of his career, putting up 21 points and nine assists.

But after the crowd dispersed and he was alone in his room, Monté couldn’t celebrate.

“Everybody thought I’d be on top of the world, but reality just hit me,” he said.

Although there were a few months left in the season, Monté felt the weight of a looming decision: to stay for his senior season at Iowa State or to leave and declare for the NBA Draft. It had been on the lips of reporters and fans all season.

He pulled out his phone and thumbed through his Twitter. Tweets filled with fans willing him to stay littered his notifications.

The options puttered around in his mind. His grandma, who died the year before, always wanted him to get a degree. He wanted to leave a legacy at Iowa State. He couldn’t leave now. Not like this.

Monté Morris has his sights set on Iowa State’s all-time assists and steals records and wants to sweep Kansas in his senior season.
Photo by Max Goldberg/Iowa State Daily

But on the other hand, Monté’s draft stock was soaring. After putting up a career game against one of the best teams in the nation, national analysts such as ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla were calling Monté one of the best point guards in the country.

In his mind, time was winding down, and he had to take his best shot and hope for the best. He FaceTimed his mom and tried to piece together his thoughts.

“I’m really leaning towards coming back here for my senior year no matter what,” Monté said. “No matter how I do in the tournament and no matter if we made the Final Four.”

Latonia’s face crept into a smile. She was proud. Monté was no longer the 17-year-old kid who moved to Ames as a freshman. He was a man.

“I wish I was next to him because I would’ve given him a huge hug and kiss,” she said later.

Trying to battle through

Monté had never felt an injury this bad in his entire body before — let alone in the shoulder.

In the weeks leading up to the first round of the NCAA Tournament and through the loss to Oklahoma, Monté couldn’t practice. He said he felt out of shape. He could barely shoot without a sharp pain striking his shoulder with force.

“[The pain] was big time,” Monté said. “[There were even] nights that I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep on my right side. I couldn’t practice. That was the biggest thing — I couldn’t practice. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t extend my arm at all.”

The physical pain in his shoulder was one thing, but the mental toll was real too. Monté had always been able to bounce back from injuries, but this time was different.

“He had never been hurt,” Latonia said. “He’d always been able to play through it.”

It would’ve been hard for a fan or even a teammate to see how Monté struggled through Iowa State’s 94-81 win against Iona in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on March 17. He looked like the pre-injury Monté — dipping, driving and seamlessly dishing assists. He ended the night with 20 points and just two assists shy of a double-double.

But Monté was still in pain. After the game, he couldn’t keep it in anymore. His roommate, former Iowa State forward Jameel McKay, heard the extent of it.

“Bro, I don’t know how I did that. I’m still hurtin’,” Monté told him. “I’m hurtin’.”

The Cyclones kept trudging through the tournament, and so did Monté, even through his shoulder pain was nearing an unbearable level. He never did put up a game like Iona again, but he wasn’t hurting the team either. Against Little Rock in the next round — the round of 32 — Monté had eight points and four assists. It was a far cry from the Monté whose season made him a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.

In the Sweet 16, Iowa State faced one of its biggest challenges of the season: No. 1-seed Virginia, a team that was known for slowing down a high-octane offensive like the Cyclones.

Monté never shied away from those types of obstacles. On Dec. 10, 2015, the Cyclones were still trying to claw back from a 20-point deficit against Iowa. Monté was the central driver in that comeback, putting up 20 points and nine assists in the game. That included one of the biggest shots of his Iowa State career.

With time winding down, Monté dribbled to the elbow of the free throw (ree-throw line and let loose a floater. It sank through the basket flawlessly. The Hawkeyes couldn’t answer in the final eight seconds, and the Cyclones pulled off the 87-86 win, sending fans into a frenzy at Hilton Coliseum.

Monté Morris lets a floater go against Iowa on Dec. 10, 2015. The shot led the Cyclones to a last-second victory and went down as one of the biggest of Morris’ career.
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

So Monté wasn’t fazed.

He had 10 points and eight assists against Virginia.

It wasn’t enough.

Virginia stifled the Iowa State offense and won 84-71. Monté missed shots he usually made, and he couldn’t be aggressive.

“I was afraid to get hit,” he said.

Monté felt like he let his senior teammates — Jameel McKay, Georges Niang and Abdel Nader — down.

“I wish I could’ve helped Georges, because he gave it all he had. But I couldn’t do anything,” Monté said.

The bus after the game was a somber scene. Monté went down the line and shared an embrace with each of his teammates. But a hug with teammate Naz Mitrou-Long, who was on his way to a fifth season after sitting out the year while recovering from hip surgery, lasted a bit longer.

Monté had something to tell him.

“I just want to let you know that I’m coming back,” Monté said. “I know you’re getting your year back, so I want to come back and play with you.”

That resonated with Mitrou-Long, who remembers that conversation to this day.

“It means everything,” Naz said. “He could have had millions of dollars right now. He was regarded as one of the best — and in my eyes the best — point guard in the country last year.

“For him to turn down his situation, and where he comes from, it means more than I could even put into words,” Mitrou-Long said.

The loss hasn’t been lost on Monté. It still creeps into his mind when he reflects on his season.

“I feel like [if] my shoulder was normal, I guarantee that we would’ve beat Virginia,” Monté said.

“I’m going to live with the results.”

Monté announced to the world he was staying at Iowa State on April 8, just a few weeks after he assured Mitrou-Long he would help him in his senior season.

The announcement video, posted online, was 4 minutes and 25 seconds in length, but its meaning transcended that length to fans, teammates and his coaches. Many of those teammates believed he wouldn’t be returning.

“A lot of people thought I was leaving,” Monté said. “Like, they lost bets. A bunch of people thought I was leaving. That surprised a lot of people.”

Although Monté made his decision to return for his senior season in January, a new NCAA rule could’ve allowed him to test the waters with NBA scouts and camps so long as he pulled out of the process in time. But his shoulder continued to hold him back. It wasn’t until May that he felt 100 percent. By then, it was too late.

“I’m going to live with the results and just know that if I have a better year or a worse year than last year, it’s not going to change me as a person with my character,” Monté said. “I’m going to live with my decision no matter what.”

Latonia has seen a change in Monté since he made his decision. He has always spent time in the gym, but he has been spending copious amounts of time shooting, dribbling and working on his game since April.

That’s where Monté was on June 23, 2016 — the night of the 2016 NBA Draft.

While NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced LSU’s Ben Simmons as the first overall pick of the draft, Monté was practicing to hear his own name called in just one more year.

More to come

Monté still has droves of goals he wants to achieve at Iowa State.

He is close to Iowa State’s all-time assists records and steals records — both held by former NBA player Jeff Hornacek. He wants to make the Final Four. He wants to sweep Kansas. He wants to break those records.

“If he wants to do all that, he’d have a perfect season,” Latonia said, laughing.

As a senior at Beecher High School in Flint, Michigan, in 2013, Morris put up his best season to date. He averaged 23.8 points, 8.8 assists and 5.1 steals on his way to earning Michigan’s Mr. Basketball award. He led his team to a 27-1 record and its second straight state championship, in which he scored 29 points.

If that senior magic can carry over to his senior season, Iowa State will be in for a treat.

Monté believes it will.

“I can’t really tell you [what I’m working on], you’ll just have to see,” Monté said. “When it’s that time, I want people to say, ‘He took his game to the next level.’ I’m really going to do that this season.”

Making the Assist

Eric Heft, Cyclone record holder and color analyst, reflects on Hilton Magic

By Emily Barske
Eric Heft was one of the first Cyclone Basketball players to play in Hilton Coliseum.
Photo by Ryan Young / Iowa State Daily

Making the Assist

Eric Heft, Cyclone record holder and color analyst, reflects on Hilton Magic

Eric Heft played for the Cyclones from 1970-1974. His record for assists in a single game still stands today.
Photo by ISU Athletics Communications

Eric Heft had never been west of Ohio. But basketball would change that.

After a visit to Iowa State, he decided that’s where he’d take his college basketball career. So, Labor Day weekend of 1970, Heft put all that he had in a couple of suitcases and got on a plane to Iowa, not knowing anyone and not knowing what would come.

College ball

Heft had been playing basketball since first grade. His older brothers played sports — he said it was just what you did in the time before the Internet. His competitive nature elevated him to success in basketball and baseball.

In his sophomore year at Lewisville High School in Ohio, Heft realized playing basketball in college might be in the picture. But college basketball back then was different.

People at Lewisville didn’t play college ball. Basketball wasn’t in the limelight at a national level. Recruiting was about personal relationships you’d built with coaches. There weren’t any basketball camps to compete against other players outside of your area.

“You never really knew how good you were,” Heft said.

His senior year, he started to realize how good he was. His high school coach started talking to college coaches and soon enough he had offers from small colleges in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

He thought at least I can play at the small colleges, but he was hoping for more.

“The turning point for me was one of the colleges, Marietta College, the coach there had been recruiting me,” he said, speaking of Coach Don Kelley. “And he had played at Ohio State. I told him I was hoping to go to some place, I guess, a little more big time than a small college.

“He’d been there for a number of years and then he called me one day and said ‘I’m leaving Marietta College and I’m going to be an assistant coach at Iowa State. He said, ‘I agree with you, I think you can play at that level and would you want to take a visit?’”

He took Kelley up on his offer and decided to take the visit.

He liked Ames. He liked campus. But ultimately, what drew him to Iowa State was something that wasn’t there yet: Hilton Coliseum.

“Hilton Coliseum was under construction,” he said. “So I saw the place I was going to play. The fact that I had someone who would advocate for me, in Coach Kelley, since I was coming out here, I guess I trusted him.”

After all, why would Coach Kelley steer him wrong? he thought.

Filling the role

Many Cyclone fans know Heft’s playing time at Iowa State by his record that still stands today for most assists in one game.

But when asked about memories of his time playing at Iowa State, the game against Nebraska where he made those 16 assists was the second memory to come to mind. The game that came to his mind first was Oklahoma his junior year.

Though he hadn’t played a lot throughout the game, down 12 points with about 10 minutes to go, Heft knew he needed to do something to turn the game around. And he did — he came in and scored 17 points to lead the Cyclones to victory.

“That was pretty big,” he said.

But bigger than 16 assists and a record that still stands today?

“I’ll tell you what the difference is — we won the Oklahoma game and the game I set the assist record in we actually lost. I count wins better than losses,” he chuckled.

Making the assist

Heft’s assist records are poised to stick around for a while, but one record isn’t in the stats book. For the past 37 years, Heft has been a color analyst for Cyclone radio broadcasts, first alongside Pete Taylor, and now John Walters.

It was happenstance that he became a color analyst.

Pete Taylor started doing solo broadcasts for Cyclone radio when Heft started playing for Iowa State. The two developed a bond that turned into a friendship, continuing after Heft graduated in 1974.

In 1979, while playing racquetball together, he told Taylor that he was going to be helping broadcast Ames High School basketball. Taylor asked why Heft didn’t do analysis with him too. That’s how his Iowa State broadcast stint got started and it hasn’t stopped since.

Seeing Hilton Magic

Having seen nine coaches make their way through the men’s basketball program, Heft has a pretty good idea of what Hilton Magic is.

Though he spent his last three years playing in Hilton, the magic wasn’t there. It wouldn’t come, he said, until Johnny Orr arrived. When Hilton Magic did come, it came in full swing.

Heft credited Orr for putting Iowa State basketball on the map and broadcasting during that time are some of the fondest memories he has of his long career with Cyclone radio.

One of his favorite memories was Iowa State knocking off Orr’s previous team, the Michigan Wolverines, in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1986.

This was the era when Heft said Hilton Magic arrived. It was driven by how the team excited the fans and soon enough the atmosphere became comparable, if not better, to playing at Kansas. The atmosphere created is still around today and Heft said it’s sometimes impossible to hear himself talk — even with his soundproof headphones.

Has he seen the floor shake? Not being at the court’s level, it’s hard for him to tell, but when Fred Hoiberg was a player he said he felt the ground shake at the end of the game when Oklahoma State missed a free throw. He’ll take his word for it.

“When there’s a lot of people there, and they’re invested in your team, it’s exciting whether you’re broadcasting the game, a fan watching or a player playing,” he said. “It just jacks up the level of not only importance but excitement around an event like that. Our fans have been tremendous for a long time.”

Arriving two hours before each game, he gets all his equipment set up and plans his segments with John Walters. But most of his preparation comes from watching recordings of the other team’s games to analyze the opponent’s strengths, weaknesses and key matchups against the Cyclones.

Heft still can’t believe that something so fun could count as work.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world — are you kidding me?” Heft said. “It’s a dream come true.”

The Team That Almost Wasn’t

Returning seniors revive team’s potential

By Ryan Young
Photo by Katy Klopfenstein/Iowa State Daily

The Team That Almost Wasn’t

Returning seniors revive team’s potential

Steve Prohm should not be sitting in the position he’s in.

Not at all.

Georges Niang, arguably the best player in Iowa State basketball history, graduated. So did fellow starters Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader.

Naz Mitrou-Long was supposed to graduate. Monté Morris was going to the NBA Draft, forgoing his senior season.

Prohm was going to be left with next to nothing. He was going to be forced to rebuild from the bottom up.

Iowa State should have been a mediocre team this season. All of Fred Hoiberg’s leftovers, who Prohm replaced before last season, are gone.

Yet that’s not how it worked out.

Mitrou-Long was forced to sit out last season because of a hip injury, which gave him a redshirt year and one final season of eligibility.

Morris decided against declaring for the NBA Draft, allowing him another year at Iowa State.

Pair those two with Matt Thomas and Deonte Burton, who both had standout years last season, and Iowa State is now in a position that it shouldn’t have been in.

“God is looking after the Cyclones,” Prohm said. “It’s a good thing.

“It gives us a chance to now put a full recruiting class together without losing a bunch of guys. I think that really, really helps this basketball team. I think we have a chance to overachieve and surprise some people. I’m excited about that.”

Replacing a legend

Replacing Fred Hoiberg is no easy task.

Yet that’s the hand Prohm was dealt. And while many have dubbed it as “one of the hardest jobs in college basketball,” Prohm feels pretty good about his first year at Iowa State.

“It was really hard. It was really, really tough,” Prohm said. “I wish I could have done better in some areas, but I grew as a coach.”

When he first arrived in Ames, there was a lot of thoughts going through Prohm’s head. How could he live up to Hoiberg, a man who the majority of Iowa State fans idolize?

There is no simple answer to that question.

Oklahoma in the Big 12 Tournament last season. The Cyclones fell in the first round 79-76.
Photo by Max Goldberg/Iowa State Daily

“When you replace an A, beloved, and B, legendary figure in Fred Hoiberg, I think you were going to meet some resistance,” ESPN analyst Holly Rowe said. “But I remember this comment that Georges Niang said about halfway through [last] season. ‘Prohm is like the stepdad. He comes in and isn’t quite sure how much discipline or how he can really get on you.’”

Prohm was the stepdad, and the first thing a stepdad does is get to know his kids.

So that was Prohm’s first task.

“The biggest thing I was thinking about [when I got here], in all seriousness, is I have to get relationships with these kids,” Prohm said. “I have to get them to trust me, believe in me.”

Instead of just shifting gears and taking over 100 percent, Prohm listened. He adapted to the style that was already in place at Iowa State. He worked to mix what he could bring with what Hoiberg had left.

“He could have easily come in here and cleaned house if he wanted to,” Mitrou-Long said. “He could have put his foot down and led with an iron fist and just been like, ‘This is my way. This is the way we’re doing it. If you don’t like it, you can go over here.’ But he was accepting to it.”

Things started out smoothly, too.

The Cyclones opened on a nine-game win streak, beating Colorado, Illinois, Virginia Tech and Iowa, among others. It was an impressive start, especially for a rookie coach.

But then the Cyclones fell to Northern Iowa. Two games later they lost to Oklahoma. Then they dropped two out of their next three conference games.

Ames went nuts.

People started calling for Prohm’s job. They wanted him gone.

The backlash caused Prohm to delete his social media accounts. He had to ignore it. And it’s a good thing he did.

Because things improved.

“It just took some time, because most of those kids had been there, Fred recruited them,” Rowe said. “They’ve been this family unit, and now you have a new dad in town, and his system is a little different, and they’re going to run stuff differently, and they have new personnel. I do think it took time, but I think it went really well.”

It took even more time than a midseason stumble for the team to pull together under Prohm’s watch.

Rowe said it didn’t happen until the conference tournament.

“I think the players started understanding he’s a good coach and [they] can trust him,” Rowe said. “I think they started responding to him in timeouts. I think by the time we got to the Big 12 Tournament we really saw that they had bought in. They were with him, and I think that was great.”

Junior guard Monte Morris celebrates a three-pointer with head coach Steve Prohm during Iowa State's game against TCU on Feb. 20, 2016.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

But even then, the team didn’t feel together.

Prohm and nearly every member of the team will tell you that they weren’t a complete unit until the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Denver.

After all, they did lose in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament to Oklahoma.

“Right when we got to the tournament,” Mitrou-Long said. “Every player will say that’s when we started playing the best. That’s truly when we started clicking the best.”

That’s a long time for adjusting, though. That’s 33 games into the season.

And while he and many other Cyclone fans are surprised that it took Prohm nearly an entire season to take control of the team, Mitrou-Long said he completely understands why it took so long.

“I’m surprised it took that long, but I shouldn’t have been surprised,” Mitrou-Long said. “It’s tough, because it wasn’t his group of kids. You come in and in a couple months you have to build relationships with everybody on the team, implement a new practice plan, implement a whole new playbook, mix in a whole new playbook that he wasn’t used to, put it all together, and head into the season with a top 5 team.”

Yet regardless of the journey it took to get there, fans can’t be unhappy with the results.

“When you come into a place and inherit a top 5 team in the country, you have a lot of expectations,” Mitrou-Long said. “So for him to come in here and soak up the information from the past seniors and then ultimately have a successful season and bring us to the Sweet 16, that’s an underrated task.”

Not all the way there yet

This season, Prohm’s task is different.

He has four solid pieces in Morris, Mitrou-Long, Thomas and Burton.

“They’re really the four mainstay guys,” Prohm said. “I think we have a good trust in one another, and I really believe in those guys. I think they’re really talented players.”

But height-wise, they’re small pieces. There isn’t a true center to take the place of McKay, who dominated in the paint last season.

That isn’t by design.

“I like a good back-to-the-basket guy,” Prohm said. “I think you have to have balance, inside and outside. That’s the one thing. We can really shoot, but we need to still get to the free throw line. We still need to get post touches. So you never turn down a good big that can score.”

The Cyclones may be forced into a “small-ball” situation, which isn’t always favorable in a conference like the Big 12.

But Mitrou-Long doesn’t think that will be an issue.

“It can be [an issue] if you’re soft. I truly believe this is one of, if not the best, conference in the country with how gritty it is,” Mitrou-Long said. “I think if you’re not tough, you’ll definitely get called out for it. But if you have the guards that we have, experienced guys who work, I think that we’ll be ready for any challenge that comes up to the plate.”

Heading into the season, Iowa State landed at No. 24 in the Associated Press Preseason Poll.

And while that’s lower than many Cyclone fans have been used to in recent years, Prohm can’t complain. With the group he unexpectedly had back, it’s better than he could have hoped for.

“That’s what everybody said, that ‘You’re going to go there for one year and lose everybody, the cupboard is going to be bare and then you’re going to have to recruit everybody,’’’ Prohm said. “It didn’t happen like that.”

He hasn’t missed a beat on building his own recruiting classes, though.

In his short time in Ames, Prohm has built a top 15 recruiting class for the 2017 season, picking up 247Sports 4 star recruits Lindell Wigginton and Terrence Lewis.

Had he not been able to return the guys that he did this season, Prohm said the program as a whole would have suffered a lot longer than just this year. It would have damaged his ability to recruit.

“Now, we’ve got a chance to put a good recruiting class together to go along with a couple of young guys we’ve got in the program and try to keep this program at a high level,” Prohm said.

Regardless of what is to come, Prohm said he is nearly settled into his new job. While he still has areas that he wants to improve on, Prohm is much more confident now than he was one year ago.

And that, he said, will be evident out on the court.

“I’m not all the way there yet,” Prohm said. “I’m still making strides, but I’m getting to be who I am and what I’m about, and I think you’ll see that in how the team plays.”

A Canadian Dream

Bridget Carleton strives for 2020 Olympics

By Brian Mozey
Bridget Carleton will be a key factor for the Cyclones this season.
Photo by Lani Tons

A Canadian Dream

Bridget Carleton strives for 2020 Olympics

Bridget Carleton was sitting on Team Canada’s bench when she heard her coach shout.

“Bridget, get ready to go in.”

Bridget smiled, but the nerves tossed and turned deep down. This was her first game with Canada’s senior Olympic squad.

As she stepped onto the court, her coach told her to shoot it if she was open. Bridget relaxed. She felt at home in her Canadian jersey.

Two minutes in, one of Bridget’s teammates dished her the ball. She was in the corner on the 3-point line: her favorite spot on the court.

Bridget didn’t hesitate.

As she released the 3-point shot, she thought, “Don’t let it be an air ball.” She didn’t want to be embarrassed.

Swish.

Bridget scored the first points of her Olympic career.

Granted, the three points were in the middle of the game and they didn’t mean much to the outcome, but the Canadian bench erupted. Her teammates wanted to support her attempt to achieve her lifelong dream of playing in the Olympics for her beloved Canada.

“Definitely my favorite memory,” Bridget said. “We went to France and Spain with them, and I took my first 3-pointer and made it. The bench went wild, not that it was an important 3 at all, but it was still exciting to get my first three points as a senior team player.”

Even though Bridget didn’t fulfill her dream of playing in the Olympics this summer — she was cut before the final roster was set — her sights are set on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity, and hopefully next summer I can build on that,” Bridget said. “I kind of wanted to be like [my mother] when I was really little. I wanted to follow in her footsteps. She was my role model growing up.”

Bridget has loved the game of basketball for as long as she can remember. Her mother, Carrie, played at Grand Valley State University, a Division II school in Michigan, and helped Bridget with her love for the sport. Ever since Bridget truly committed to pursuing basketball, that mother-daughter relationship has grown.

Carrie remembers watching Bridget’s basketball games in high school and when she participated with the Canadian national team at 15.

When Bridget tried out for the Canadian 16U team, she impressed the coaches with her ball handling and shooting ability and was asked to join. She has been on every squad leading up to the senior team.

That’s a system that Canada uses to develop its players, so once they’re old enough to be on the senior team, they can excel. The order consists of the 16U team, 17U team, 18U team, 19U team, development or Senior-B team and the Senior-A or Olympic team.

That experience with Canada translated to success in high school. She became one of the top basketball prospects in Canada coming out of her senior year, but she knew her future college would be in the United States.

The competition level was important to Bridget, and the United States had the NCAA Tournament and other competitive levels that Canada didn’t provide.

Iowa State provided that competitive spirit she was looking for at college.

Photo by Lani Tons

Bridget found out about Iowa State through coaches, specifically Bill and Billy Fennelly. The duo had been focusing more on international recruits, so they made sure to speak to Bridget, one of the top Canadian prospects.

She also made her trip to Iowa State during the recruiting process and fell in love with Hilton Coliseum, the atmosphere, her teammates, and the academics.

Fennelly told Bridget to focus on her dream with making the Olympic team. He wanted to do anything he could to help her achieve this dream at Iowa State while helping the Cyclones reach their goals in the NCAA Tournament. Her family and Bridget appreciated the fact that she wasn’t just coming to Iowa State to play college basketball, but also had a focus on the continuation of her dream.

Her family and Bridget knew that Iowa State was the right place.

Carrie remembers watching Bridget play her first game as a Cyclone. When Bridget was announced for the first time to the Hilton Coliseum crowd, Carrie looked down the row of family members and almost everyone was in tears.

The Cyclones were playing Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Dec. 13 and Bridget played well. Carrie was excited to see her play, but didn’t expect that kind of performance from her. She made six 3-pointers and scored 22 points in the end. She also collected three rebounds and two assists.

After the game, the family met her on the court to give her hugs and congratulate her on the win. The Carleton family made fun of her for missing certain shots or not getting a certain rebound. Carrie said their family loves to joke around, so it’s a common thing for them to act that way after a basketball game.

“It was a moment that me and our entire family will never forget,” Carrie said. “I can’t wait to watch her again at Iowa State this season and hopefully at more venues in the future.”

While Bridget played at Iowa State, she continued practicing with Canada in the summer before college, which helped her prepare for the (collegiate) competition level.

Then Bridget got the phone call she had been waiting to receive for more than five years. She had been called up to the Canadian senior Olympic team. Bridget immediately called her parents.

That conversation started with Bridget sounding overly excited about making the senior team and then Carrie’s questions started. Carrie is the type of person who’s excited for the person at the beginning, but then needs to know all of the information before making a decision.

“There’s a lot of emotions when you watch your kid play a sport she loves,” Carrie said. “Hearing the Canada national anthem and seeing her in the Canada jersey still brings tears to my eyes.”

Bridget was one of the youngest players invited to the senior team, which allowed her to learn from some of the best Canadian basketball players who play overseas or in the WNBA. Her favorite player, Kim Gaucher, a 32-year-old guard who plays in France, helped Bridget with techniques to improve her basketball IQ and overall skills.

Bridget knew it would be a challenge to make the Olympic team because of the chemistry between among most of the older players. She said she was even surprised to make it as far as she did, because she thought it would be only a month or less until the team cut her.

It’s a four-year cycle and it’s hard for a player to put herself into that cycle in year three. All of the players on the Canadian national team had gone through the four-year cycle together.

She understood the decision and she’s ready to come back to Iowa State with new tools in her toolbox.

Iowa State's Bridget Carleton grew as a player over the summer when she competed with the Canadian National Team.
Photo by Max Goldberg

“I think my basketball IQ has grown a lot over the summer,” Bridget said. “I think I have just more confidence in myself.”

She also is bringing back improved skills, coach Bill Fennelly said.

Because Bridget is taller than most guards, she had a hard time guarding the smaller, quicker guards. Fennelly jokingly said she must have learned how to defend this summer because he never saw that from Bridget last season. He saw plenty of improvement from her freshman year to her upcoming sophomore year.

Bridget averaged 33.8 minutes per game as a freshman last season — third on the team — which forced her into a leadership role. Fennelly and his coaching staff said they have seen her leadership skills develop through this fall, both on and off the court.

“Bridget is probably one of the hardest working players on this team,” Fennelly said. “You don’t need to keep eyes on her because she’s always out there working on something to become a better player, not only for Iowa State but also Team Canada.”

Bridget has two goals this season. She wants to help get Iowa State back into the NCAA Tournament and compete at a high level in the Big 12. She also wants to make the senior team this summer and start that four-year cycle, so she can be a part of the World Championships in 2018 and the Olympics in 2020.

Fennelly said she can easily obtain those two goals, and her chances of playing after college are in her favor.

Bridget Carleton dreams of playing for the Canadian Olympic team in the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen

“Carleton has a good chance of being drafted in the WNBA or playing overseas,” Fennelly said.

That’s what Bridget wants after her Cyclone and Olympic dreams are fulfilled. She hasn’t lost that love for basketball and wants to continue playing until the feeling disappears.

“I love the game of basketball so much, it’s what I love to do,” Bridget said. “I have never not loved the game, and I don’t get tired of it ever. I want to be the best I can and get as far as I can.”

But Bridget isn’t focused on four years or even two years from now because she can only control the present. Right now, she wants to do her part for the Iowa State women’s basketball team and help lead her team to a successful season.

The team didn’t receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament last year after finishing with a losing record. It’s been rare for Iowa State to not be in the tournament since Fennelly took over the program. Fennelly’s teams have been in the NCAA Tournament 16 times during his 21 years at Iowa State.

Fennelly also was an assistant coach for the U18 team for the United States in 2008, 2009 and 2011. He won gold each year and understands the expectations and commitments needed to win a gold medal. More importantly for Bridget, he wants to help her win one for herself.

Bridget has appreciated Bill’s hard work toward helping her with becoming a better player for the Iowa State program and also Team Canada. It’s a process that is longer than Bridget expected, but she knows that it’ll be worth it once she puts that Team Canada jersey on and is able to represent her country.

“I think growing up, I mean every athlete’s dream is to play for the Olympics one day, and I mean that dream had kind of gotten stuck in my head,” Bridget said. “I know with hard work and dedication it’ll happen. At that time, my dream will finally come true.”

Family First

Seanna Johnson forced to put family ahead of basketball

By Brian Mozey
Seanna Johnson become the fastest player to reach 800 rebounds in Iowa State history during the Cyclones’ season-opening game against California-Santa Barbara on Nov. 11.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

Family First

Seanna Johnson forced to put family ahead of basketball

Seanna Johnson pressed the phone to her ear. All she heard was sniffles and crying from her mother, Tanisha.

The first thing Seanna thought of was her brother, Jarvis, who had been diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy the year before.

A quick silence was followed by her mother saying, “Your dad had a stroke.”

At that moment, Seanna wasn’t worried about the 37-point loss that happened at Baylor earlier that day — Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016 — but rather played the scene leading up to the phone call over and over again.

Seanna didn’t have her phone with her during the plane ride from Waco, Texas, but when the team landed in Iowa, the basketball coaches had five missed calls from Tanisha. Assistant coach Latoja Schaben called Tanisha back and realized the situation was serious. Seanna needed to talk to her mother.

Seanna didn’t think it was a big deal because Tanisha calls and texts her almost on an hourly basis, but she took the call.

“My emotions didn’t hit right when she told me the news because I didn’t think it was that serious,” Seanna said. “Once my mom told me [my father] needed immediate surgery, then I knew it was serious.”

All Seanna knew was that her father, Curtis, had bleeding in the brain. The official diagnosis for Curtis was that he had a hemorrhagic stroke, a stroke that includes aneurysms.

After his stroke, Curtis Johnson didn’t wake up until a week later, but Seanna Johnson and her family were by his side the entire time.
Photo by Seanna Johnson

Seanna wanted to go home to Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, that night to be with her family. Both coach Bill Fennelly and Tanisha demanded that she stay in Ames that evening because it was 11 p.m. and she was filled with emotions.

She respected the decision, but didn’t get much sleep. When the sun came up, Seanna was in her car and driving three and a half hours home.

She never stopped at her house. She went directly to the hospital.

When Seanna walked into her father’s room, he wasn’t awake. He hadn’t been awake since the stroke.

The only thought going through Seanna’s head was a repeat of the scene with her brother last year.

The only positive thing coming from walking into the room was that her family was there and she had someone to lean on.

“Nobody was crying, and the atmosphere seemed like we’re going to get through this,” Seanna said. “It already happened once with my brother, and with our faith in God, we knew things would be OK in the end.”

Curtis didn’t wake up until a week later. When he did, Seanna was sitting by his side. A sigh of relief came over her, but she knew it didn’t mean much in the whole process of recovery.

After he woke up, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and had another surgery. The family knew it would be a slow recovery. But Seanna knew she had to go back to school at some point.

She missed the next two games of the regular season, but it was a battle for Fennelly to keep her with the family. Seanna called Fennelly the morning of Feb. 24 to let him know that she could come down hours before tip-off to play against Kansas State.

“I told her that basketball isn’t [her] first priority right now,” Fennelly said. “You should be focused on your family and making sure your father is recovering well.”

Family is the most important thing to Fennelly, and that’s what made Seanna and her entire family interested in Iowa State during the recruiting process. Tanisha said Fennelly was the only coach who spoke about family being a first priority, and that’s what made the Iowa State program special to Johnson’s parents and Seanna.

After being home for about a week, Seanna decided to go back to school and play in the last regular season game against West Virginia in Ames. She said she played one of her best games and recorded a double-double, but Iowa State lost to the Mountaineers that evening.

She also played against Texas Tech in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament in Oklahoma City. The team lost 89-84 and didn’t advance. After the team returned to Ames, Seanna headed back home to check on her father.

“We knew that she needed to go back home and be with her family,” teammate TeeTee Starks said. “That’s what was most important.”

The Johnson family is close. The family contacts (one another) consistently and they all are passionate about basketball.

Tanisha remembers watching Seanna play at De La Salle High School. After every game, Seanna and Curtis would go over plays that went well and the ones that needed improvement.

Tanisha said that everyone had a piece to the puzzle with helping Seanna during her high school basketball career. Seanna appreciated having everyone come watch her games and support her in high school and then help her transition into college at Iowa State.

“It means the world to me to know my entire family has my back at any point that I need them,” Seanna said. “Now, the focus needs to be on my dad and his recovery to make sure he’s back to normal soon.”

Seanna Johnson attended De La Salle High School and was one of the top recruits out of high school.
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

Seanna said the recovery process for Curtis has been slow, but there continues to be more improvements than setbacks. He’s still in a rehab facility, but he’s being transitioned into a home that will teach him how to walk and do other daily activities.

Seanna said her father has some memory issues, especially with backtracking on events that happened in the past, but he’s going to therapy every day to help him with his memory and other physical movements.

“He’s been working hard at his therapy and rehab to get back to normal, and it’s pushing me to become a player for my final season,” Seanna said. “This season is dedicated not only to my brother, [Jarvis], but also for my dad, [Curtis].”

Seanna dedicated her 2015-16 season to Jarvis, after all of the health problems he went through. This year, the season is mostly dedicated to Curtis because she wants to make her final season at Iowa State count.

Seanna and Tanisha said Jarvis is doing well healthwise. He had a pacemaker placed inside his chest that has helped him avoid any more heart episodes. He is still on the University of Minnesota basketball team, but isn’t able to play.

Last season, the Johnson family wasn’t able to make it to many of Seanna’s games because they had to be there for Jarvis and monitor his health.

“[Curtis] was really excited and blessed to hear that Seanna was dedicating this season to him,” Tanisha said. “We’re excited to get to Ames for the first game and cheer her and the Iowa State team this entire season.”

Seanna Johnson missed part of the tail end of the 2015-16 season after her father, Curtis, suffered a stroke in Minnesota.
Photo by Seanna Johnson

Tanisha said she was worried the first couple of years with Seanna being at Iowa State because she didn’t know how she would transition in a new state and new atmosphere.

She doesn’t worry about Seanna any longer because she’s become more mature through the situations she’s gone through and has developed into the leader that Fennelly needs on and off the basketball court.

He’s happy that Seanna is healthy during this preseason, but also knocked on wood because she’s never been healthy during a preseason at Iowa State.

Fennelly said she has the ability to leave her mark in Iowa State history. Seanna could break a few school records such as the all-time rebounds, points and double-doubles marks.

“You want [a healthy season] for every kid, but especially the seniors,” Fennelly said. “For [Seanna Johnson], special could be really special.”

Even though this will be Seanna’s last year at Iowa State, Fennelly thinks this could be the beginning of a successful basketball career. Fennelly believes that Seanna has the passion and desire to play at a higher level such as the WNBA or in Europe.

Tanisha explained the situation to Seanna as simply as she can.

“You only have one life to live, so if you want to do basketball, take that opportunity and enjoy the experience,” Tanisha said. “If you want to start a career right away, your family will be behind you no matter what path you choose.”

Tanisha and Curtis agree that they can see Seanna moving to the next level. If Seanna decides to enter the WNBA Draft, Tanisha hopes her daughter gets drafted by the Minnesota Lynx, so she can be home.

Seanna Johnson has professional aspirations after her playing career at Iowa State. Seanna’s mother, Tanisha, hopes Seanna is drafted by the Minnesota Lynx, so she can be at home.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

As for Seanna herself, she hasn’t made the decision yet on whether she wants to take that next step in her basketball career. She wants to focus her attention on giving everything she has to her final year at Iowa State in hopes of doing well in the Big 12 regular season, Big 12 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.

She’s excited that there are different paths she can take after her years at Iowa State, but she doesn’t want to think about them until the time comes.

Tanisha talks to Curtis about Seanna’s future all the time. It makes him happy.

He always wants Seanna to be successful, but for her to have the ability to be successful in the sport she loves would be a dream come true.

Curtis and the entire Johnson family will try to make as many basketball games as possible because they know it’s the last time they’ll be able to see Seanna in an Iowa State jersey. It’s difficult for Seanna to describe how much it means to her to have this amount of support from her family.

“My dad means everything to me,” Seanna said. “He’s helped me through everything, and all I want to do is have a great final season for him and the rest of my family.”

Over the Ocean

Women’s basketball plunges into international waters

By Sean Sears
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

Over the Ocean

Women’s basketball plunges into international waters

The Iowa State women’s basketball team has four incoming freshmen this season, nothing out of the ordinary for a school that graduated two seniors and had another player transfer.

But Iowa State has never had an incoming class like these freshmen.

Of the four Iowa State newcomers, three are from a different country, with Nia Washington being the lone player from the United States.

Sofija Zivaljevic, Adriana Camber and Aliyah Konate are the international newbies. While they all come from different countries — Montenegro, Sweden and Germany, respectively — they all have one thing in common.

They all committed to Iowa State on their first and only visit to Ames.

Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly reeled in three recruits from Europe for the 2016 class. One of them, Sofija Zivaljevic, has already made an impact this season.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

While the players were seeing Iowa State for the first time, they heard all about the school and the respected basketball program coach Bill Fennelly had built. The process Iowa State’s coaching staff has taken to start recruiting overseas was something that started a few years ago.

“It’s one of those things where it takes a lot of time, and you have to build that trust with the people over there,” Iowa State assistant coach Billy Fennelly said. “But if these girls can have a great experience, and we can bring new recruits to talk to them, it can really help us in the future.”

Billy and others on the staff had seen interest in international players for some time, and their first success was with sophomore guard Bridget Carleton, a native of Chatham, Ontario.

As a freshman for Iowa State last year, Carleton averaged 12 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game, while also working out with the Canadian Olympic team this summer. The Canadian put together one of the best freshman seasons in Iowa State history, and gave the coaching staff the confidence to pursue other players from outside the United States.

While Carleton panned out well for the Cyclones, not all players can make the jump as well as the second-year guard did.

“The game is a bit more physical here,” Bill said. “And they don’t play a ton of defense, so the style of play is a bit different, but their skill level should translate well to our style of play.”

Billy agreed with his father and said that difference in the style of play is the reason he wouldn’t want “an entire team full” of players from overseas. In Europe, basketball has more of a focus on ball movement and organization, and while a player could be talented, that doesn’t necessarily transition into the American game.

“These kids are used to grabbing five girls on a court and just playing,” Billy said. “So when we start teaching them the playbook, it can be difficult to grasp.”

Iowa State basketball involves more plays attacking the rim, creating a shot as opposed to passing to find one, and the defensive intensity in the United States is more than any of these women have ever experienced.

European basketball requires its players to use more finesse and create openings for teammates by passing to score points.

Each one of the players has shown a great interest in furthering their basketball careers, and each has a desire to get better, Billy said. It’s the main reason the coaching staff has been trying to make its name known in the international game.

That being said, making a place like Ames known to a student in Montenegro is not easy. Creating contacts and trust with people from other countries takes time.

How the coaching staff became aware of some of the players comes down to sheer luck in a few cases, while some players have been on their radar for a few years.

Recruiting players from out of the country is still a somewhat newer experience for Billy and this staff, and even with experience, it isn’t an exact science. It can be hard just getting players who are a more than 10-hour flight away for a visit, which can only be 48 hours long like any other recruit.

The process to get these kids to Iowa State is far more intricate than bringing in a recruit from the United States, so Iowa State subscribes to a few recruiting services that have scouts all over the world.

Iowa State uses these recruiters to find the top out-of-country prospects and to create a list of players the team wants.

These services are essential to recruiting overseas for Iowa State, but other programs in the country have access to these services as well, making it harder to stand out at times. It’s why connections are extremely important.

It’s how Camber found herself on the Iowa State roster.

Adriana Camber is a Swedish guard who has the ability to play the wing for the Cyclones.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

A Swedish product, Camber was discovered by Billy after he was tipped by a former co-worker via Facebook.

“It was strange,” Billy said. “A manager for me at Maryland was from Sweden. He sent me a Facebook message about Adriana, and we followed up on it and brought her and her mother [to Ames].”

From there, Camber and her family fell in love with the campus and the facilities. Camber was already confident in the basketball side of things, after multiple Skype sessions and numerous phone calls, but it was her education her family was concerned about.

“My family always says, ‘School first. Basketball second,’” Camber said.

And after spending time in Ames, she and her family were convinced that Iowa State would satisfy both of those needs.

Of course, some recruits are discovered by more traditional means.

The lone representative of Germany on the roster, Aliyah Konate was on the verge of moving to Minnesota in 2015. After some paperwork fell through, Konate was forced to stay home another year.

Alyiah Konate came to Ames from Berlin, Germany. She was set to attend Minnesota before paperwork fell through.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

But while in Minnesota for a few workouts, Konate caught the attention of programs around the area, and the interest started to grow. As Konate started to gain attention, a few coaches who had former players come to Iowa State mentioned the program to the German, and they eventually reached out to Billy about the 6-foot-4 center.

The two parties touched base, and soon she was on her way to visit Ames. Konate’s large frame and Iowa State’s lack of height made the two a great fit. But for Konate, it was the culture the program had cultivated.

“I just felt like everyone here was so nice and welcoming,” Konate said. “It made me feel like I was home.”

And then there are players that fill a need, like Sofija Zivaljevic.

Iowa State was aware of the Montenegro guard, knowing it needed to add some depth to the point guard position, but hadn’t scouted her. However, another team had been recruiting her, but had a different recruit commit late in the game. This school backed out, but tipped Billy about Zivaljevic.

Once Iowa State caught wind of Zivaljevic, Billy quickly reached out to the staff to inquire about the Montenegro guard.

Sofija Zivaljevic came to Ames from Montenegro, a small European country in the middle of the Balkans.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

“The team basically gave us their entire scouting report on her,” Billy said. “It was months of work we now had without having to do almost any of the work.”

So with the newly acquired information, Iowa State felt it had a great understanding of who it would be getting in Zivaljevic. She came on a visit with her mother, toured campus like the rest and picked out classes.

“I got to campus, met some of the coaches, and I made my decision right then and there,“ Zivaljevic said. “The coaching staff made me confident I would do well here.”

This freshmen class is rare, Billy said, because most schools would try to avoid taking this many international students at once. But the coaching staff made an exception for these three.

“Ideally, you’d like to get one or two [international players], and it kind of all just felt right with all three of them,” Billy said.

As for the transition to the United States, the hardest part hasn’t been finding a role on the court or getting along with the players, but the American diet.

“I do not like the food,” Camber said. “You [Americans] eat almost nothing fresh.”

All three of the foreigners have made it known they are not the biggest fans of the American diet, complaining of the fried foods and lack of fresh items.

Most European foods are prepared with fresher ingredients, more fish and chicken along with fruits and vegetables. But almost none of it is frozen or precooked, making most of the foods in an average college diet borderline repulsive to these three.

Luckily, the three are currently living together alongside American Nia Washington, who has been essentially a lifeline for the three international students.

Washington arrived earlier to Iowa State to take summer courses. She also has a car, so she was able to show the other three around campus, take them to buy groceries and show them how to use the bus system in Ames.

And while she was a key person in their transition, Washington thinks she is learning more from them.

“They have taught me to share more,” said Washington, who is an only child. “It’s something I wasn’t used to, but has made me become more open to the idea of sharing.”

While these three newcomers may all come from different backgrounds, and may be raised differently, they all have the common ground of loving basketball.

“In the beginning we were all like, ‘Will you talk in your language?’,” Buckley said with a laugh. “But now it’s nothing new; they fit right in and they’re all ready to contribute.”

Women's Newcomers

New Players

By Jack MacDonald

Women's Newcomers

New Players

Sofija Zivaljevic

Height: 5’9’’
Position: Guard
Hometown: Podgorica, Montenegro
High School: Montenegro U20 National Team, Zkk Buducnost Bemax (MZRKL League)
Recruiting Class Rank: 4-star recruit by BlueStar Europe

HS/College Career

  • Averaged 8.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists while competing for Montenegro’s U20 National team
  • Led club team, Zkk Buducnost Bemax to MZRKL league title
  • Won National Cup and National Championship with club team
  • Was the fourth member of ISU’s 2016 recruiting class

Heather Bowe

Height: 6’0’’
Position: Forward
Hometown: Eau Claire, Wisconsin
High School: Regis High School
Recruiting Class Rank: N/A

HS/College Career: N/A

  • Spent three seasons at Vanderbilt, while starting in 55 career games for them
  • Averaged 6.1 points for the Commodores and scored a career-high 19 points against ETSU in 2013.
  • Names Associated Press Wisconsin Player of the Year as a senior
  • Set Regis High School scoring record with 1,797 career points and led Regis to state championship in 2011

Nia Washington

Height: 5’7’’
Position: Guard
Hometown: Stafford, Virginia
High School: Riverdale Baptist High School
Recruiting Class Rank: 3-star and 95th best Point Guard

HS/College Career:

  • Started three years at Colonial Forge High School and scored in double-figures each year
  • Brought home the conference player of the year award, all-conference and all-state honors her junior year after averaging 18.0 points
  • Transferred to prestigious Riverdale Baptist for senior season and was a McDonald’s All-America nominee
  • Led Riverdale Baptist to 39-3 record and number six ranking in the country

Adriana Camber

Height: 5’10’’
Position: Forward
Hometown: Lund, Sweden
High School: Katedralskolan Lund
Recruiting Class Ranking: 5-star recruit by BlueStar Europe

HS/College Career:

  • Member of Nordic Championship national team in 2013 and 2014
  • 4-time all-star in the Swedish Championship
  • Competed in U20 European Championship in the summer of 2016

Aliyah Konate

Height: 6’4’’
Position: Forward/Center
Hometown: Berlin, Germany
High School: Mildred Harnack
Recruiting Class Ranking: N/A

HS/College Career:

  • Member of Germany’s 3-on-3 national team at 2014 Youth Olympics
  • Competed for club team ALBA Berlin
  • Scored 48 points in her first WNBL game
  • First ALBA Berlin player to be named to the national team in 2013

A Frozen Tradition

What does a Clone Cone mean to you?

By Emma Blickensderfer
The Clone Cone is a frozen tradition in Hilton Coliseum.
Photo by Drew McMahon

A Frozen Tradition

What does a Clone Cone mean to you?

As iconic as the Zodiac, Lancelot and Elaine or even Cy himself, the Clone Cone is a nine-year tradition to all of those who have experienced Hilton Magic.

For just $5, Iowa State fans can get a sky-high helping of vanilla ice cream from portable concession stands in Hilton Coliseum. During men’s basketball games, attendees can get these vanilla cones from five different locations. Women’s basketball games host four stands, and there is at least one stand at any other sporting event at Hilton.

We asked students, alumni and devoted fans to recount their first, favorite and habitual moments with the cardinal and gold swirl.

“I had only been to one home Iowa State basketball game before I was a student here. Clone Cones aren’t cheap, and as a college student that’s a lot of money for ice cream, but I absolutely love ice cream, especially if it’s in Cyclone colors. I’ll try to do it about two, maybe three times a year, almost always at the beginning of halftime. I’ll get up the stairs as fast as possible so I can get it, get back to my seat, eat it, and usually when it’s time to start the second half, it’s all gone because I don’t take my time when it comes to the Clone Cone. For one, I love ice cream, huge ice cream fan. It’s kind of a rite of passage. You have to have a Clone Cone at least one time when you’re a student if you’re going to basketball games … I wish they had them at football games! Marketing idea, we’ll have to send that over to Jamie Pollard and say, ‘Hey let's put some Clone Cones out at Jack Trice.’” – Cole Staudt, Iowa State Student Government President and senior in political science and public relations

“It was the first game of the year, and I hadn’t had a Clone Cone for almost a year. It was always a tradition for me to get one 20 minutes before tipoff. I went and ordered it, and it was really exciting because the girl kept laying on the ice cream. It was so tall, and when she put the cone on and handed it to me, I was so excited and grabbed it kind of funny, and it all tipped over into my hands. I caught it, but it was all over me. I regained it into the bowl and proceeded to take a basic insta pic of it.” – Drew McMahon, junior in mechanical engineering

Abi Meekins, senior in public relations, enjoys a Clone Cone in Hilton Coliseum.
Photo by Abi Meekins

“It was probably my second basketball game, and my friend and I had these coupons for a free Clone Cone. We had never had one before, and the lady serving them overheard us and shouted, ‘Oh, we need a big one!’ She watched the one before ours get made, rolled her eyes and made mine towering.” – Abi Meekins, senior in public relations

“The first time I saw it, I thought it was sherbet so I was kind of bummed, but I like ice cream so I was happy either way. I used to get a Clone Cone at every basketball game, but I would have to get it 60 minutes before the game started so I could eat and digest it before I went crazy.” – Kyle Ticer, 2016 ISU alumnus

“The Clone Cone is such a huge part of the Iowa State experience. It's so cool that it's a tradition for everyone who has attended the school. I faithfully attended every basketball game that I could physically be at during my time at Iowa State, and I usually started the season with a Clone Cone and ended the season with a Clone Cone. I personally could never finish one on my own, so I liked to split it with my friends and then with my coworkers when I was working for the Athletics Department.” – Lauren Vigar, former intern for the Iowa State Athletics Department and 2016 ISU alumna

“I usually go to women’s basketball games with my father-in-law, a season ticket holder, when my mother-in-law is gone for work. Toward the end of one game the line was short, so we decided to get Clone Cones. I was joking around with the guy saying he should really load it up for me. He said he would only do it if I gave him a big smile and my number. I told him that I could give him the smile but that I was married so I couldn’t give him my number. He said, ‘I guess that’ll have to work for now,’ as he proceeded to pile it up high.” – Stephanie Cook, daughter-in-law to Susan Lamont, distinguished professor of animal science

“I was always afraid to get a Clone Cone because I didn’t want to be shown on the Jumbotron eating one, but one evening I took a little girl and two teenage boys I was watching to a game, so I thought that was a great excuse to get one. The little girl ended up spilling it all over, and all of the season ticket holders around me were giving me the dirtiest looks, but the little girl was happy, and I finally got to taste one.” – Teisha Knutson, 2014 ISU alumna

“For the last two years, my friend and I have gotten one at halftime, and we split it in the middle. I always get the top and the cone, and he gets the bowl and spoon.” – Annie Gustafson, graduate student in business administration

“I used to work at Hilton, and one time when I was working in the stand, a girl dropped a bag of the mix, and it hit the ground and exploded, so everything was coated within a five-foot radius.” – Hugh Hutchison, junior in pre-business

“I am in the pep band, so during a women’s basketball game, my piccolo friend and I convinced our director to let us sneak away for a minute to get a Clone Cone during halftime. We came back after the second half had already started so we were running back because we were supposed to be playing. We got back and laughed and continued to eat our Clone Cone while we were playing.” – Elijah Gebler, junior in computer engineering

“You have to get a Clone Cone at least once a game. I remember the challenge was trying to eat it all before it melted because they load it up. It was my reward for standing in line outside of Hilton for as long as I did.” – Matt Paulaitis, senior in marketing and finance

“Last year my roommates took me to my first basketball game ever. At halftime they suggested getting a Clone Cone, and of course, I had no idea what that meant. I bought one and it was huge, so I had to take a picture for Instagram. I started eating it, but then the game started, so I was trying to jump around, hold up the three and eat all at the same time. After that game, I went to every game for the rest of that season and kept getting more Clone Cones.” – Alberto Lara, 2016 ISU Alumnus

“One of my friends got a Clone Cone when we went to the Texas game last year. I thought it was sherbet, but it’s vanilla. It’s pretty expensive, but it was as big as his fist, so I couldn’t believe he ate that much ice cream. Ever since then, I get one before tipoff so I don’t have to take it into the crazy student section.” – Tanner Adams, senior in child, adult and family services

“I usually get them at basketball or volleyball games. When I do, I usually get them in an upside down cone with a dish and then share them with someone. You can’t beat a Clone Cone, and you can’t get one just anywhere. A Clone Cone at Hilton Coliseum during a big game is definitely a must!” – Allye Bodholdt, senior in pre-business

“I always got a Clone Cone when I went to the women’s basketball games with my family. My parents are big ISU fans, especially women’s basketball, and my youngest sister aspires to play for our great school one day. We had season tickets all throughout my time at school, and it was pretty typical to get a call as I was walking home from class asking if I wanted to catch the game that night. Can’t say I could resist.” – Abby Jones, 2015 ISU alumna

Her Last Hurrah

Heather Bowe lands at Iowa State after Vanderbilt stint

By Brian Mozey
Photo by Jack MacDonald

Her Last Hurrah

Heather Bowe lands at Iowa State after Vanderbilt stint

Heather Bowe twice faced life-changing events most people — hopefully — will never experience.

And both times, she overcame and moved on.

As a child, it was always Heather Bowe’s dream to play at the Kohl Center while donning a Wisconsin Badgers jersey.

It was her dream to play Division I basketball at Wisconsin-Madison, just 200 miles from her hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. She wanted to be a Badger.

That dream became a reality after Bowe’s high school freshman year when she received a scholarship offer from Wisconsin. She was excited to live out her dream, yet relieved to get the scholarship early and know she had a place in the exclusive world of Division I college basketball. She had made it.

At least, that was her thought until she received a phone call right before her junior year of high school.

The call was from Bobbie Kelsey, the newly hired head coach at Wisconsin. Kelsey told Bowe that her scholarship was being revoked and she couldn’t play for Wisconsin.

“I was shocked and angered from the phone call,” Bowe said. “It was always my dream to play for the home school at Wisconsin-Madison, but I truly overcame the adversity of this situation and moved on.”

The reasoning behind the revocation, Bowe said, was because of her size and not being able to be aggressive underneath the hoop.

Iowa State’s Heather Bowe is an undersized forward, which deterred Wisconsin coach Bobbie Kelsey.
Photo by Jack MacDonald

Bowe was crushed. She didn’t know if she would be able to play college basketball again. She thought it was too late.

After a day or two of expressing her frustration, Bowe decided to fight back and find another school. She started receiving offers, and got one from Marquette, a school just across her home state in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But before starting her senior season, she chose to go to Vanderbilt, a school in the SEC nearly 800 miles from her home. Vanderbilt allowed her to develop as a player and have a chance to live her dream of playing basketball professionally.

And now, five years after her decision, Bowe has landed at Iowa State and is living out a new dream.

“I lost all hope for the game of basketball at one point in my basketball career,” Bowe said. “Luckily, Iowa State was there to help and guide me in the right direction with the sport of basketball.”

Living a new dream

Bowe was always involved in sports. Her basketball career started when she was 4 years old when her mother took her to a recreational league for children to learn the basics of the game.

She continued playing every sport that she could growing up. It was fun for her. It was that simple.

Bowe had an early growth spurt and was 5 foot 8 by her fifth-grade year.

That height led her to love the game of basketball, and it became a true focus as she entered high school. Once her freshman year of high school came, Bowe focused on two sports: basketball and volleyball.

She stopped playing softball and running track in high school. Bowe thought volleyball and basketball worked together well, especially since volleyball was a fall sport and basketball came right afterward in the winter.

“I think basketball and volleyball coincide with each other because there are similar skills needed for each sport,” Bowe said. “For example, you jump a lot in volleyball, and going into a basketball season I thought I could grab every rebound because of my jumping abilities.”

Basketball became even more serious after her freshman year of high school when she received her first offers from colleges. After the situation with Wisconsin, she decided to attend Vanderbilt, where she was a Commodore for the next three years.

Iowa State newcomer Heather Bowe left Vanderbilt as a graduate transfer after she had thoughts of quitting basketball before her junior season of college.
Photo by Vanderbilt Athletics

It was a new beginning for Bowe to prove, not only to Kelsey and Wisconsin, but also to herself, that she could be a dominant post player in college.

Going into Bowe’s freshman year at Vanderbilt, she didn’t know anyone from the school. She also didn’t expect to play that much during her freshman year because the team already had two dominant forwards. She was looking forward to learning from them her first year, so she could be her best at the beginning of her sophomore year.

But she didn’t get to ease into her collegiate career like she had planned. Early in the season, forward Stephanie Holzer went down with an ACL injury and Bowe was thrown into the lineup to replace her.

Bowe had some big shoes to fill. Holzer averaged 11 points and 7.5 rebounds per game the season before Bowe came to Vanderbilt. But Bowe had to step in. And was respectable.

In her first season at Vanderbilt, Bowe averaged 6.2 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, and shot 49.7 percent from the field. The Commodores made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and lost to UConn, which went on to win the tournament that year.

And while they didn’t make it past the Huskies that season, Bowe used those memories and that experience as a benchmark to improve her statistics as an individual player, but also to become a better leader.

One small mistake

Bowe was working on improving her shooting and rebounding before the start of her sophomore year. It was getting closer to the start of the season, and Bowe was juggling basketball and academics.

And then she wasn’t.

During the fall semester of Bowe’s sophomore year, she was accused of plagiarism on a paper for her Religions in China class. The paper went through a system that checks for anything that looks like plagiarism, and an alert popped up.

According to Vanderbilt’s Student Handbook and Honor Code System, any student accused of plagiarism must go through three steps before penalties and consequences are handed out.

First, school officials met with Bowe to hear her side of the story and ask questions regarding the situation. Bowe didn’t think she plagiarized, because she thought she had cited her sources correctly.

The second step of the process was to take Bowe’s case to a hearing. This hearing included a presentation of the investigative report, a testimony and a decision.

The third step was to decide the consequences. Bowe was suspended from the basketball team for the spring semester of her sophomore year and the fall semester of her junior year. She wasn’t allowed to practice, play games or even be in the basketball facilities for an entire year.

She also was suspended from Vanderbilt during the spring semester, so she moved back home to Eau Claire. Bowe’s once-bright basketball future was beginning to look dim.

At her home, Bowe worked with the trainer she had worked with while playing in high school. Her trainer put her through workouts that were similar to Vanderbilt’s system of weight lifting, cardio and basketball drills.

During the summer before her junior year of college, Bowe had thoughts of quitting basketball because she lost the love of the game. It was one of her darkest times her in life, but she said she realized how much she missed the game and couldn’t give it up.

Bowe returned to Vanderbilt that fall. She started taking classes again, and playing basketball on her own. During that semester, though, Bowe realized she wanted a fresh start.

Bowe graduated from Vanderbilt in three years with an interdisciplinary degree with a focus on business. After graduating, Bowe still had one year of eligibility remaining. She decided to transfer. She wasn’t done playing basketball yet.

When she came to Ames for a visit, she was hooked on Hilton Coliseum and the Cyclone fans almost instantly. She also developed a strong relationship with coach Bill Fennelly. That helped in her decision to become a Cyclone and pursue a graduate degree in business administration.

“It definitely wasn’t an easy time,” Bowe said. “I actually lost the love for the game, but I think that love came back after I came to Iowa State.”

A new home

Bowe came to Iowa State in January 2016, but sat out the spring half of the season. Bowe decided to wait until the 2016-17 basketball season to play because she only had one full season left of eligibility. If she played when she came to Iowa State in January, she would only be able to play one semester of basketball this season.

Fennelly thought it was the best decision for her.

“I think it was a great decision [to not play last season],” Fennelly said. “It gave her a semester to ease into things and to get to know her teammates.

“At one time last year, she told me that she could play if I needed her to play, but I told her no, because that would’ve been as selfish as it gets.”

Now Bowe has an entire season to help Iowa State, and she can achieve her goal of getting that fresh start and ending with a strong year.

One of her best friends and teammates, Bridget Carleton, is happy to have Bowe on the team.

Carleton knew that Bowe would help Iowa State immediately because of her size and her abilities back at Vanderbilt.

On Sept. 5, Bowe’s birthday, the women’s basketball team went to the Iowa State football team’s season opener against Northern Iowa to celebrate. Bowe said she enjoyed sharing her birthday memories with her best friends and teammates even though Iowa State didn’t win the game.

“That football game was a fun time with not only Heather, but also with all my other teammates,” Carleton said. “My relationship has grown stronger both on and off the court with Heather throughout the year I’ve known her. I love the girl as a friend and as a teammate.”

This season is important for Bowe because she only has one season at Iowa State to prove herself. She doesn’t look at individual goals because basketball isn’t an individual sport, but rather a team sport.

Bowe wants to help in any way to bring Iowa State back to the NCAA Tournament. Whether that’s rebounding, shooting, blocking, defense or just sitting on the bench and cheering, she said she’s ready for any role.

Iowa State forward Heather Bowe fought through a number of struggles in her life, but she’s ready for her final season of college basketball.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen

And she’s hoping that her basketball career doesn’t stop after graduation. She would like to play in the WNBA or in Europe.

“I wish I was her agent, because she’s going to do really well,” Fennelly said. “I don’t know what she’s going to do, but I know she’ll do really well.”

Fennelly has helped Bowe prepare for European leagues since she came to Iowa State. He appreciates her efforts toward improving every day, and he said that’s what will get her to these leagues after graduation.

She knows this was a great decision to leave Vanderbilt and end her college career at Iowa State.

“Vanderbilt gave me everything and more regarding not only my basketball, but also academic career,” Bowe said. “I knew it was time to leave and come to Iowa State at the time, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.

“I’m looking forward to playing for a school that saved my love for basketball and wearing that Iowa State jersey for the entirety of this season.”

Rebounding From Failure

Bill Fennelly resets team after losing season

By Sean Sears
Photo by Emily Blobaum

Rebounding From Failure

Bill Fennelly resets team after losing season

Losing isn’t something Iowa State women’s basketball does.

Losing isn’t something head coach Bill Fennelly does.

Missing the NCAA Tournament hadn’t happened for Iowa State women’s basketball since the 2003-04 season.

Yet, in the 2015-16 season, Fennelly and his Cyclones watched the NCAA Tournament on their televisions from home, finishing with their first losing record since the 2002-03 season.

Fennelly’s Cyclones had as bad of luck as anyone in the NCAA last season, losing three starters in a few short months, sending a promising season crashing to the ground.

Iowa State started the season 11-4, but after its Jan. 9 win against another struggling team in Kansas, the team did not win another game until facing Kansas again on Feb. 2. The Cyclones won two more games after their hot start and finished the season at 13-17.

It was only the second losing season in Fennelly’s 21-year Iowa State career.

Nobody in the women’s basketball program cares more about winning than Fennelly, and the Iowa State coach is never shy about sharing his emotions on or off the court. So for him to go through such a sour season, he easily could have pointed out some clear issues and events that happened last season, but instead, he took responsibility for last season’s shortcomings by saying that success “starts and ends with him.”

“I think it’s a lot harder on the coach than anybody,” Fennelly said. “There’s a lot of things that happened to this team, and I didn’t help them handle it the right way.”

Last season, Bill Fennelly lost a few players to injury and one to a sudden midseason transfer.
Photo by Emily Blobaum

While Fennelly took responsibility for the team’s disappointing season, he could not have changed much to avoid what happened. The team spent some of the season without its two star guards, Seanna Johnson and TeeTee Starks.

Starks only played nine games after undergoing season-ending knee surgery, forcing her into the role of cheerleader, as she tried to make the best out of a difficult situation. Starks had been dealing with chronic knee pain before she arrived at Iowa State, and she decided the smart move was to deal with the issue to ensure a healthier career. However, it cost the freshman her entire year, while Iowa State lost its team leader in assists at the time of the surgery.

Later in the season, Johnson had an injury scare of her own, hurting her knee after grabbing an offensive rebound. Her knee ended up being OK, but her father suffered a stroke late in February, forcing her out for most of the rest of the season.

Iowa State ventured through the rest of the season without two key players, which was hard on the team, but was even harder on Starks and Johnson as they watched their teammates struggle through the second half of the season.

Johnson wanted to help her teammates so badly that she offered to drive back and forth from her home in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, to Ames for games while her father battled back from his stroke.

And as desperate as Fennelly was for his star player to return, he knew Johnson’s place was back home with her father.

“I just told her, ‘No, you’re not going. You need to stick with your family, and when you’re comfortable and your mom’s comfortable and, most importantly, your dad’s in a better place, then you can come back,’” Fennelly said.

Fennelly’s character shined through his decision, and while it shows the type of man Fennelly is, it still left the rest of the Iowa State team in a state of crisis.

But the most difficult part of the season was the departure of the team’s starting center, Bryanna Fernstrom, who requested a release from her scholarship in early January. Fernstrom jumped transferred to the University of Minnesota two days after being released.

Fernstrom’s departure left the team hurt on more than just a physical level. Players, coaches and staff were stunned when news broke that their starting center had left them. Emotionally, the team felt betrayed by one of its own, but had almost no time to deal with the midseason loss.

It’s still a touchy subject for most of the players and coaches. Assistant coach Billy Fennelly did not have much to say on the subject.

“We turned our focus on the players that wanted to be here,” he said.

Billy said nobody has heard from Fernstrom, but he has heard a few things through the grapevine. At this point, neither he nor the rest of the team has much more to say.

He did point out, however, that Fernstrom’s exit forced freshman center Meredith Burkhall to play last season, and that made her a better player in her sophomore year. She gained valuable experience she otherwise would not have had until later in her career.

“It hurts losing a starter who plays 25-plus minutes a night,” Billy said about Fernstrom. “Meredith Burkhall, while a great player, was not ready to play so much so early.”

Fennelly’s team was diminished significantly from the beginning of the 2015-16 season, with only eight players available on most nights. Fennelly’s hand was being forced to play young, less-experienced players, while also tacking on more and more minutes for veteran players like Jadda Buckley.

Bill Fennelly struggled with his team’s unsuccessful season in 2015-16. Fennelly felt like he let everyone down and said the season starts and ends with him.
Photo by Emily Blobaum

It’s hard on a team to lose that much, but Buckley found some reassurance from her coach knowing he was taking this season’s struggles just as hard, if not harder, than she and her teammates.

“We all take losing to heart,” Buckley said. “But [Fennelly] is just one competitive human being and wants to always win, which is great to have in a coach.”

Fennelly and the Iowa State squad battled with inexperienced players alongside some seriously tired starters, as the Cyclones slugged through their final five games without Johnson.

Iowa State was exhausted, both mentally and physically, as Fennelly’s team was struggling to keep any of their games close in the final month of the season. With hopes of keeping the team semi-fresh for games, Fennelly decided the team should forgo practices and just stick to workouts and simple game preparations to try and preserve what little energy this team it had left.

It was a decision that Fennelly said was the demise of Iowa State’s season.

“We literally quit practicing,” Fennelly said. “We tried to save our legs, we did walk-through stuff, and I made that mistake. We should’ve kept competing, even with limited bodies.”

Fennelly’s attempt to save his team’s legs ended up killing the team’s competitiveness for the rest of the season, and Iowa State lost its final five games, finishing 13-17 overall with a 5-13 record against Big 12 teams.

Iowa State’s average margin of loss for those final five games was roughly 15 points per game, further proving the Cyclones’ main goal of the season had shifted from winning games to just surviving them.

“We were all just physically drained,” Buckley said.

Fennelly explained to his players after last season that when things like that happen and you they let people down, it’s hard to accept. For Fennelly personally, letting people down is the main reason he is so competitive. He feels haunted by this past season, as everything fell apart so quickly, but he and the team are not dwelling in the past any more.

“We can talk about the past all we want,” Johnson said. “But at some point, you have to move on and use it as motivation.”

With the struggles of last season behind them, Fennelly got together with each of his players to evaluate what went well and what needed to be improved during the offseason.

Fennelly also put a large emphasis on conditioning. The Cyclones are not going to have issues with tired players on the court.

After dealing with injuries and the departure of Iowa State’s starting center, Bill Fennelly slowed practice down, spinning the season into a dismal one, he said.
Photo by Emily Blobaum

The addition of new strength and conditioning coach Cassandra Baier has made a major impact so far this offseason with multiple players. Johnson and Starks have praised Baier.

On top of that, the team added four new freshmen, including three from Europe, in hopes of improving the team’s depth issues. And even though the newcomers are unlikely to see a ton of time during their first year at Iowa State, just having enough players to hold scrimmages at practice will make a difference.

With the motivation of last season, along with a few minor changes, the players already are feeling a different kind of vibe from the locker room this season. The chemistry seems to be at an all-time high.

“This team is having a lot of fun,” Johnson said. “We are very close as a team, and I think that’s going to help us on the court this season.”

Even someone like freshman Nia Washington, who has only been around the squad for a few months as a freshman, can feel the difference in this Iowa State team compared to others she’s played on in the past.

“With girls around each other for so long, you usually have drama or bickering,” Washington said. “But there are no cliques, everyone can talk and hang out to anyone, and especially on the court it’s starting to reflect that.”

While the team is starting to come together stronger than last season’s did, the biggest difference between this year and last year is that Fennelly has learned from his mistakes.

Trying to gain perspective while failing is hard, but for Fennelly, it comes to him as uncharted territory.

While not having experience losing isn’t a terrible thing, it also can teach a more important lesson: How to win. As Fennelly said throughout last season, sometimes a loss can teach a team more than a win. He forgot how much losing hurt. He’ll take that to heart going into the 2016-17 season.

He vowed to get the results people have come to expect from Iowa State women’s basketball.

“We’re going to deliver this season when it comes to playing at the level of basketball people have come to expect from us,” Fennelly said. “And hopefully we’ll find ourselves back in the NCAA postseason.”