SPOKANE, Wash. — When Iowa State head women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly took the microphone minutes after the Cyclones’ 86-47 win over Alabama State on Dec. 30, he thought that the crowd at James H. Hilton Coliseum was expecting a New Year’s salute.
But Fennelly had something far more monumental in store for the fans that had attended the final game of Iowa State’s holiday classic.
Two weeks prior, Ryan De Hamer had stepped into Fennelly’s office and asked for a favor. He had a life-changing event in mind, and he wanted Fennelly’s help in pulling it off.
De Hamer and Cyclones senior center Anna Prins had been dating for almost three years at that point, after meeting during Prins’s freshman year.
“[De Hamer] said he wanted to propose, and he wanted to do it on the court, because Anna’s family was going to be there,” Fennelly said.
By family, Fennelly means both the immediate version and the one that Prins has forged through her four years in Iowa State’s program. As the head coach of so many Cyclones teams (this is his 18th season at the helm), Fennelly recognizes the importance. De Hamer realized it as well.
“He knew coming to Iowa State was a big part of her life,” said Fennelly. “He wanted to share it with people.”
Fennelly frequently cites the ‘Iowa State way’ — building a program that plays the game with upstanding character and outstanding hustle. That sort of commitment cannot help but foster a familial feel for the players who come through it.
An engagement proposal on the court where these young women had spent so many years fighting toward a common goal seemed a perfect encapsulation of that credo.
“I was a nervous wreck before the game, and I was a nervous wreck the whole time because I wanted to make sure … luckily we [won big],” said Fennelly. “I wasn’t even thinking about the game.”
Fennelly kept his MC duties short and to the point. He wished the crowd a happy new year, and said that there was someone in attendance who wanted to do something.
De Hamer walked to midcourt, and asked for Prins, who was seated alongside her teammates, to come join him.
With comprehension slowly dawning upon her teammates — they began to bounce and rock on the bench, pushing Prins on her way — Prins headed over, pulling her jersey up over her mouth, the weight of the occasion rising and cresting like a wave.
“I turned around and I said to Pop (Cyclones senior forward Chelsea Poppens), ‘She’s going to say yes, isn’t she?’” Fennelly said, suppressing a chuckle.
With the crowd watching on, and the Cyclones stamping their feet in raucous anticipation, De Hamer asked the question. Will you marry me?
Hands quivering, Prins said yes, without skipping a beat. Her teammates rushed her and mobbed her, bouncing up and down, ecstatic that they could share this moment together.
“I’ve never been a part of that, and I don’t think I ever will again,” said Fennelly. “It was great. [De Hamer] put a lot of pressure on the other [players’] boyfriends to come up with a way to propose. It was a special moment for their family and they were all there and the kids were a part of it. It was unique. It was fun.”
A sublime sort of serenity has accompanied Prins as she embarks upon the final journey of her collegiate basketball career, the proposal — her future — meshing perfectly with this team and this final campaign.
"There’s one of two ways you can respond to the prospect of playing in the NCAA tournament as a senior," Fennelly says.
"Some are so daunted by the prospect of losing that they become overwhelmed by the occasion and clamp up, to deleterious effect. But some embrace the finality and respond by playing with a heightened sense of freedom and purpose."
Prins has done the latter, with aplomb. She was named to the All-Big 12 tournament team after averaging 22 points through three games, shooting 60-percent shooting from the field and 7-of-11 from three. (She’s averaging 11.9 points and 5.3 rebounds on the season.)
Against Oklahoma on March 10, she poured in 32 points in a 79-60 win that propelled the Cyclones into the tournament final against Baylor. When she’s playing that well, Fennelly says, Iowa State becomes awfully difficult to beat.
“She’s been playing like a senior,” said Fennelly. “She had two-and-a-half games in the Big 12 tournament as good as anyone we’ve had here. And she did it against Carolyn Davis (Kansas), Nicole Griffin (Oklahoma) and Brittney Griner (Baylor) — not bad players.”
She’s earned the respect of her peers and opponents. Speaking during Sunday’s press conference, Georgia senior forward Anne Marie Armstrong said that Prins does an excellent job of reading defenses and picking out passes accordingly.
In Iowa State’s inside-out offensive scheme, where forwards Chelsea Poppens and Hallie Christofferson seem to score everywhere on the court and guards Nikki Moody and Brynn Williamson pick their spots with a poise that belies their relative youth (Moody is a sophomore, Williamson a junior), it’s Prins’s passing at the top of the key that often fires the engine into life.
Bulldogs coach Andy Landers agreed. The ability to pick passes out with precision — and without hesitation or any thought of failure — is the hallmark of a great team.
Iowa State is well-drilled, and they trust each other. That comes down to senior leadership, something that Prins takes great pride in helping deliver.
Fennelly says he is a “senior-oriented person.” They grace the promotional posters around the Ames campus and dominate media requests. On the court, they fortify their teammates against the rip tides that inevitably arise during the course of these lengthy college basketball seasons.
Before seniors enter their final season in his program, Fennelly meets with them and imparts a simple message. “Your goal is to leave a piece of you behind,” said Fennelly. “You want to be remembered for who you are as a player, and as a person. People will … there are seniors (former players) that people still talk about at Iowa State. We want them to be those kinds of people, and then teach the others. I think they’ve done that this season.”
Fennelly is sure that Iowa State would not have gotten to this point without the likes of Prins and likewise, Prins knows she wouldn’t be here without this team.
She is saying all this in the Iowa State locker room in the McCarthey Athletic Center, minutes before practice on a Sunday.
Then, a teammate who is sitting on a table nearby drops her phone. Before it can stop clattering on the ground, she rushes to apologize if she disrupted the interview with Prins.
Then, Coach Fennelly pops his head into the room and shouts, “About five minutes ‘till practice, then we’re stretching!”
Prins chuckles. These are the moments you cherish. These are the moments that define everything that’s good about a program. This is all part of the Iowa State way.
Before this season began, Prins, Poppens and Amanda Zimmerman decided they wanted to lead a bit differently. There would be no sense of entitlement or hierarchy.
“We brought the team together and just told them, ‘This isn’t about status, this isn’t about seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen,’” said Prins.
“We’re a whole, and we do things together, as a team. It’s not about one individual player, or two. I think we’ve just taken that mindset through the whole year, treating everyone kind of as equals. I know I’ve played on teams before where the seniors treat the younger players like they’re way above them.”
As the season has wound down to its current station, Prins notes that Fennelly has allowed the seniors to assume a greater leadership role for the team. It’s a loose bunch, says Fennelly — and they’re soaking up every minute of this NCAA tournament.
When they faced a gutsy Gonzaga squad in Saturday’s opening round match up, the Cyclones didn’t falter, even as the Bulldogs produced a couple of furious runs late in the game.
Iowa State hadn’t overloaded on game planning against the Zags, just as they won’t do for Georgia, their opponent in the second round on Monday night. They know what they need to do — they’ll pinpoint an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and react accordingly — and Fennelly recognizes that this team doesn’t need excessive preparation. They’re as self-motivational as they come.
Against Gonzaga, the Cyclones kept their composure and rallied the wagons around the core principle of belief. Then, they went out and delivered a 72-60 victory.
Really, could there have been a more fitting setting for a proposal than in front of this family?
“The whole engagement thing was really special,” Prins said. “Ryan chose to do it in an atmosphere where we’re really close to the fans, and just that the girls were able to experience it, and the staff … at the end of it, when all the girls ran out and hugged us, it was a really special moment. I know Ryan and I will always remember that moment.”
De Hamer’s job back in Iowa prevented him from flying out to Spokane to watch Prins in her first-round match up against Gonzaga. He won’t be there Monday, either, but he’ll watch from home, as he always does. Once the game’s over, the two will talk on the phone, as they always do.
Prins’s parents will both be in attendance, making the trip from Broomfield, Colo. because, as Prins aptly puts it, you never know when your last game might be. “It just means a lot to have my parents here,” said Prins. “They’ve been my biggest support system through my whole career.”
Bolstered by a support system in attendance, and another proudly there in spirit, playing for a team that proudly calls itself a sisterhood — damn the clichés — Prins is flourishing.
She’s playing some of the best basketball of her four-year career, relishing every moment of this final ride on the collegiate roller coaster.
No matter what happens Monday night, you couldn’t envision a better finish.
Tipoff between third-seeded Georgia and No. 5 Iowa State is set for Monday at 9:50 ET at the McCarthey Athletic Center.