AMES, IOWA— The tears began to roll down Bill Fennelly’s face before his feet reached the edge of the Hilton Coliseum court. Now, here they were again, welling in his eyes and unable to be contained as he sat next to his wife, Deb, at the podium. He was pondering 20 years worth of memories.
Since Fennelly arrived in Ames from Toledo in 1995 to overtake a program that had fallen on rough times — having won 22 combined games in the previous four seasons — he has guided the Cyclones to 15 NCAA tournament appearances and numerous upsets. Now, there was this: Iowa State had defeated No. 3 Texas, 59-57, its first win against a top-5 team since 2004.
Where does this rank, he was asked?
“I don’t like to rank best players, best teams, best wins. But best memories? …” Fennelly asked, his voice first cracking, then fading off to a hardly-audible murmur. “Yeah. Because of the day… All my players… My family… I’m really happy for our team. Our team needed this really bad. I’m really happy for them.”
Just as Iowa State needed Fennelly back in 1995, his team needed any positive momentum after it watched a 24-point second-half lead disappear earlier in the week in a loss to TCU. It would be no easy task against an undefeated Texas team that had already beaten the likes of No. 6 Stanford and No. 4 Tennessee.
The Longhorns showed their prowess early, hitting seven first-half 3-pointers and jumping to an 18-point lead with 2:50 remaining in the period. Then Seanna Johnson hit two free throws and Brynn Williamson nailed a 3-pointer as time expired to go to the break trailing by 13.
That momentum carried to the second half, where the Cyclones eventually built their run to 14-0, drawing within four of the Longhorns with 16:16 to play.
“We came out really flat out of halftime," Texas coach Karen Aston said. "I thought the first four minutes of the second half would be very telling in this game. I thought we would either sort of put them away or allow them to think that they could get back in the game, which is exactly what they did.”
Over the course of the next eight-plus minutes, the Cyclones first tied the Longhorns and then took a 7-point lead with 8:10 remaining in the game. Iowa State would score just one more basket.
After Texas tied the game at 57-all with 42 seconds remaining, Nikki Moody drove to the basket, as the shot clock whittled away, and dished the ball to Johnson, who laid it in to put the Cyclones ahead by two with 19 seconds to play.
“I knew I wasn’t going to shoot it, because when I drove to the basket, I saw Nneka [Enemkpali] in my face and she was either going to block it or I wasn’t going to be able to get it up there," Moody said. "I knew the best thing for me to do was to dish.”
Iowa State’s signature win was sealed when Texas missed three jumpers on its final possession. “It felt like the longest three seconds of my life,” Moody said.
“All our former players and the magic of the fans knocked that last shot off,” Fennelly joked afterward.
It was some of the magic that the program has encountered since Fennelly's arrival two decades ago. And on the day, when 18 former players returned to honor Fennelly’s 20 seasons at Iowa State, here he was now, adding one more big moment.
“It’s one of those, if you wrote this out the way it all happened and took it to Hollywood, they’d laugh at you. It’s like a movie,” Fennelly said. “It’ll be right up there as one of the best days I’ve ever had a coach.”