"We just never got into the flow of the game," said ISU head coach Bill Fennelly. "I thought when we got up nine or 10 in the middle of the second half we had things going our way. But we made a couple defensive mistakes or turnovers and they hit some big shots. We were down 52-51 and scored the last 10 points of the game. That showed a lot of character. Sometimes you have to grind it out."
A lot of the Cyclones' problems could be chalked up to the pressure of Senior Night. O'Neil, Katie Robinette, Mary Fox, Lisa Kriener, and Tracy Paustian played their final home game in front of a Hilton Coliseum crowd of 9,723.
The five seniors spent a half-hour addressing the crowd following the nine-point victory.
"To hear the comments they make and the articulate way that they present themselves and their families is truly amazing," Fennelly said. "Part of the reason we struggled tonight is that there was a lot of emotion on the team. They didn't want it to end here. We played well enough to win and knew it would be hard. We had to fight through some things and were our own worst enemy at times, but in the end it's a win."
ISU shot just 40 percent from the field, including 8-of-24 in the first half, but still got 52 combined points from the trio of Robinette, Fox, and O'Neil. Robinette posted her eighth double-double of the season with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
The game's tempo favored the Jayhawks early in the game, with ISU heading to the locker room up 25-24.
The second half was filled with key runs by both sides. The Cyclones scored 11 straight points to take a 40-31 lead with 12:04 remaining.
But Kansas got back in the game later with a run of its own. Crystal Kemp hit three straight field goals to spark an 8-0 flurry that cut ISU's lead to 44-43 with 8:33 to play.
Robinette's free throws at the 4:40 mark would put the Cyclones up by four points, but again Fennelly's team was unable to close the door. Kaylee Brown knocked down a 3-pointer and Taylor McIntosh added a layup for a 52-51 KU lead with 3:15 to play.
Fox's jumper 26 seconds later would put ISU up for good and lead to the game-closing run.
The 19th-ranked Cyclones improved to 22-5 overall and closed the Big 12 regular season at 12-4. They are likely headed for a five-seed in next week's conference tournament and opening-round matchup with Colorado.
"The great thing about athletics is when you can pull things together," Fennelly said. "Our seniors have had a great regular season, but there are still things ahead of them. They relish those opportunities and look forward to getting a couple of days off. We'll come back to the practice court on Friday and head down to Kansas City on Sunday afternoon.
"The challenge now is to understand and enjoy this moment and the regular season. When we come back to practice on Friday we're going to put it away. Our focus right now is all Big 12 Tournament and if we can hang around a while."
If the Cyclones earn the fifth spot in the bracket they would play Tuesday afternoon at 2:30.