March 24, 2009

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BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP) -Nicky Wieben had been waiting her entire career to celebrate a trip to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Forgive the Iowa State senior if she got started a little early.

Wieben knocked down the game-clinching 3-pointer with 2:01 remaining, then proceeded to nearly tackle teammate Kelsey Bolte while they ran back down the court as the steady Cyclones held off Ball State 71-57 to advance to the round of 16 for the first time in eight years.

Fourth-seeded Iowa State (26-8) will play Michigan State in the Berkeley regional semifinals on Saturday.

"It's so awesome," said Amanda Nisleit, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds. "We always dreamed about this, even when I was a little girl. There's no way to describe it. I'm just so proud of our team and so proud that we've gotten here."

Even if it came at the expense of one of the tournament's feel-good stories.

The 12th-seeded Cardinals (26-9) became the darlings of the NCAAs opening weekend after stunning two-time defending champion Tennessee on Sunday.

They proved the biggest win in the program's history was no fluke, battling with the bigger, deeper more experienced Cyclones for 30-plus minutes before fading late in the second half.

Porchia Green led Ball State with 18 points, Jade Barber added 13 and Emily Maggert chipped in 12, but the Cardinals saw their 12-game winning streak snapped against a team that refused to get rattled by Ball State's relentless pressure.

Iowa State turned it over just 10 times, including just twice in the second half.

Not that the Cardinals were hanging their heads at the end of their memorable run.

"It's been a historic season and I don't think (the players) even understand how historic this will end up being," Ball State coach Kelly Packard said. "The stat sheet is probably not going to get critiqued. ... I was proud the other night against Tennessee and I'm just as proud now."

Packard is hoping her team's journey is the first of many.

Getting to the NCAAs has become an old habit for the Cyclones, though one that came with a familiar ending the last two seasons. Iowa state fell in the second round in each of the last two tournaments.

Wieben and fellow senior starters Kelsey Bolte and Heather Ezell were determined not to let it happen again.

Wieben led four Iowa State players in double-figures with 18 points, Bolte added 16 points behind 5-of-7 3-point shooting and Ezell had eight points, nine assists and zero turnovers as the Cyclones finally broke through.

They didn't waste a chance to drink in the moment, rushing onto the floor at E.A. Diddle Arena as the buzzer sounded, even if their route to Berkeley wasn't the one they thought they'd take.

The Cyclones came to the tournament thinking they'd have to get by mighty Tennessee to advance, but the Cardinals altered those plans when the Mid-American Conference champions handed the Lady Volunteers their first opening round loss in 28 NCAA appearances.

Packard worried her team would have trouble coming down to earth following a dizzying 48 hours since the upset that shook up the brackets.

The Cardinals certainly looked ready to play, rallying from an early seven-point deficit and tying the game at 32 early in the second half.

Iowa State, however, withstood the surge and responded behind the steady play and sharp shooting of its seniors.

The Cyclones tied an NCAA tournament record with 16 3-pointers in an opening round win over East Tennessee State. They only managed 10 against the Cardinals, but it was enough to stave off a handful of late Ball State surges.

Ball State climbed with 43-39 with 9:43 left when Ezell knocked down a 3-pointer to push the lead back to seven. Bolte followed a few minutes later with a bomb that extended the lead to 51-43 with 6:43 left.

Nisleit dropped in a 3 from the top of the key to give the Cyclones their first double-digit lead at 56-45 before Wieben provided the dagger that set off a party eight years in the making.