DES MOINES – Twenty-one years later it is happening again.
One of the biggest basketball games in metro girls’ basketball history occurred in the Class 4A state semifinals in 1999.
Waterloo West, led by USA Today National Player of the Year Nina Smith, beat an Amy Swisher-led Cedar Falls team, 56-49, in front of more than 7,000 fans at Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
Flash forward to 2020 and with Smith’s daughter, Brooklynn starting for the sixth-ranked Wahawks, West will face the fifth-ranked Tigers in a Class 5A first-round girls’ state tournament game at 3:15 p.m. Monday at Wells Fargo Arena, across the street from Veterans Memorial.
“That was a great game,” West coach Dr. Anthony Pappas said of the 1999 affair. “This one will be, too.”
This matchup is also generating a lot of buzz.
“I think it is pretty exciting that we have two Cedar Valley schools, two metro schools playing against each other at the state tournament,” said Cedar Falls head coach Gregg Groen. “I think big picture it is great for the Cedar Valley.”
This meeting has a lot of similarities to the 1999 meeting.
Like then, Cedar Falls and West split regular-season games. The Wahawks beat an Emerson Green-less Tiger team, 60-43, at home on Dec. 13. With Green back in the lineup, Cedar Falls turned the tables on West in a 67-58 win in Cedar Falls on Jan. 31.
In 1999, the Tigers blew out a Wahawk team without Smith, 83-56, only to see West win the rematch, 59-58.
And there is one other striking similarity with the game, but in reverse order. In that 1999 season, Cedar Falls started a freshman, Ellie Peterson, two sophomores in Kerry Juhlin and Kim Hansen, and Swisher, a junior, whereas West started three seniors Smith, future San Diego State star Jamey Cox and Stephanie Staack.
Monday’s game will see the Tigers start two seniors – Green and Lexie Godfrey, junior Anaya Barney, a sophomore Sydney Remmert and a freshman, Jasmine Barney. The Wahawks will counter with two freshman, leading scorers Halli Poock and Sahara Williams, Smith a sophomore, junior Gabby Moore and senior Lauren Conrey.
“This is the youngest team we ever have had qualify for the state tournament,” Pappas said. “We are playing freshmen and sophomores and have another freshman that would be playing that is injured. For what they have accomplished as such a young team it is kind of amazing.”
Groen admits there are some advantages to the Tigers’ experience, including the fact Green and Anaya Barney started on Cedar Falls’ 2018 tournament team.
“In terms of being down there before that experience does have its advantages,” Groen said. “At the same time, that newness and being there for the first time can have its own motivational factors, too. Really, what we’ve talked to the girls about is competing and doing what you have been doing all year and trying to put it altogether.”
Conrey, West’s lone senior starter, said her young Wahawk teammates don’t play like freshman and sophomores.
“I knew playing with them this summer that they would step up and play hard,” Conrey said. “Halli and Sahara don’t care if I’m a senior. They want to play me one-on-one in practice. They want to beat me. They’re competitive.
“They’ve stepped up all season. They definitely don’t play like freshmen.”
Poock, who hit two free throws with one second left to lift West past Urbandale, 46-45, in the regional finals, leads West with a 18.8 scoring average. Williams, Conrey, Moore and Smith all average between nine and 10 points.
Conrey is the straw that stirs West’s offense.
Entering the state tournament, Conrey has 377 career assists. Her 111 this season makes three straight seasons over 100 for the Grand View University commit. She needs three more to tie Lindsey Aves, who played at Georgia Tech, for third all-time on West’s assist chart. Cox is the all-time leader with 429, and Shannan Smith, who led the Wahawks to the 1994 semifinals before departing for Yale is second with 398.
“The youth of this team is really what makes us different,” Pappas said. “Hopefully they will continue to grow and get better. At the same time, this group is not going to settle for just making it down to state. They have the mentality of wanting to win a state championship.”
Despite a lack of height, Green and Barney are the Tigers’ two tallest players at 5-foot-11, Cedar Falls has not backed down and has only gotten stronger down the stretch. Since losing to then top-ranked Iowa City High in overtime on Jan. 21, the Tigers have won 11 straight.
Barney and Green, both committed to Northern Iowa, each are averaging better than 17 points and 7 rebounds a game, and Jasmine Barney had 16 points in the Cedar Falls win over West in January, a game where the Tigers nailed 14 3-pointers, including five from reserves Anna Sandvold and Morgan Linck.
“Every time we step on the court it is going to be a battle and every time we step on the court against West it is going to be a bigger battle,” Anaya Barney said. “We know we have to go in strong and ready. I didn’t perform well down there the last time so I’m excited to get down there and play a little better.”
West, making its first appearance at state since 2014, is equally excited.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere with a lot of fans from both sides,” Moore said. “We know each other well. We are close in many ways. But once we get on the court it will be about the game.”
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