STORY BY AUSTIN CANNON
With the Bulldogs’ season opener on the line, the game fell into the hands of a freshman playing in her first-career regular-season game.
Twice in the final 24 seconds of the game, guard Nicole Miller toed the charity stripe and hit a pair of free throws to keep the Iowa State Cyclones at bay. Those four points proved to be the difference, as Drake beat the Cyclones 74-70 to open the season.
Drake held a 70-67 lead after a pair of foul shots from ISU’s Seanna Johnson. Miller was fouled in the backcourt with 25.6 seconds remaining. After Miller converted both of her free throws, Caitlin Ingle committed a basketball cardinal sin by fouling Jadda Buckley on a three-point attempt. Buckley made each free throw, and the Drake lead was down to 72-70.
Again, the ball found Miller, who was fouled with four seconds remaining. She calmly hit both shots, giving Drake a two-possession lead and ultimately its first victory over the Cyclones since 2009, 74-70.
The 18-year-old from Walker, Iowa, was prepared for the pressure after weeks of preseason practice.
“When I got to the free-throw line, I just thought about being in the gym,” Miller said. “I talked a lot with our Coach Jacqui (Kalin) just about relaxing and just blocking out everything.”
“We got beat by a better team,” ISU coach Bill Fennelly said.
Team is the optimum word. The Cyclone starters scored 59 points, but their teammates on the bench could only manage 11. Drake, in contrast, got 36 points from its bench, led by Sara Rhine, another freshman, with 15. Miller added 13. Each Bulldog who played scored.
“Everybody scored, everybody had rebounds, everybody did their part, so, in that sense, I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” head coach Jennie Baranczyk said. “Everybody did their part and I love that.”
Lizzy Wendell, last season’s MVC scoring champion, was quiet in the first half, making one shot on three attempts. As she’s done during her entire career, however, she managed to produce. She scored 14 in the final two quarters, including three straight buckets in the third quarter to turn a 41-36 deficit into a 42-41 Drake lead. It was her 44th straight game of scoring 10-plus points, which helped her earn MVC Player of the Week for the first time this season.
“(I) just stayed in the game, kept shooting, kept moving on offense, kept trusting my teammates and trusting Caitlin to get me the ball and then (shots) ended up falling,” Wendell said.
Wendell’s baskets were the turning point of the third quarter. Those six points marked the start of a 21-7 Drake run, in which four other Bulldogs scored. With one quarter remaining, Drake led 57-48.
The Cyclones struggled to make baskets, especially from downtown (8 of 33). Iowa State relies on threes, much like Drake, but the Cyclones couldn’t find their rhythm on Saturday.
“Just a matter of missed shots; we need to be back in the gym more,” Buckley said.
But the Cyclones did not want to go quietly. They narrowed the Bulldogs’ lead to five with 7:09 to go, but then hit a dry spell. Drake did too, as neither team scored for nearly three minutes. A 3-pointer from Wendell and a layup from Ingle gave Drake a 70-60 lead, but ISU, again, refused to accept its fate.
Johnson hit a jumper with 2:11 remaining, ISU’s first points in nearly five minutes. TeeTee Starks followed with an and-one layup on the next possession. Starks hit the free throw, and the 10-point lead was halved.
Maddy Dean, who quietly had a 10-point, 11-rebound double-double, fouled Johnson with 1:26 to go. Johnson made both her foul shots to trim the lead to three, setting up Miller’s clutch free throws.
“It’s nice to protect our house and get this big win, especially against a great team like Iowa State,” Wendell said.
The season couldn’t have started much better. Baranczyk said after the game that Iowa State would be a top-25 team this year. Now the job is prolonging that success against Wisconsin on Wednesday.
“It’s a big win to propel us to our nonconference schedule,” Baranczyk said. “Our big test is: OK, can you win a game and now sustain it?”