By Erin Smith
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Call it luck or call it fate, but Alison Lacey's journey to playing Division I women's basketball at Iowa State was anything but conventional. She calls herself a home body, yet the Australian chose to move almost as far away as she could to attend high school in the United States. In the process, she literally fell into the lap of ISU coaches.
The 6-foot senior guard, who is nicknamed 'Aus,' was frustrated with school in her home country and a little burnt out on the basketball court. After discussions with her family, she decided that a year as a foreign exchange student in the U.S. was the tonic. The big move came with one condition - her twin brother Mark had to come along.
The exchange program she went through would not allow siblings to stay in the same household, so the Lacey twins did the next best thing. They found two separate families in Ames, Iowa. Mark went to school at Ames High, while Alison attended Ballard High in Huxley, 15 minutes outside of Ames.
"We got wind of a kid that had moved as an exchange student to Ames, and we didn't know anything about her," Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said. "We heard that she was a decent player. I saw her at an open gym in October, and it took about five minutes to tell that she was good. That was in the fall, and then in the first open recruiting period, she was playing in a tournament, so I sent a couple of coaches to watch her in a more competitive situation. I got a call during the game that it was a no brainer, so we started recruiting her."
While Lacey had considered the possibility of staying in the United States to attend college, she wasn't sure she was interested in continuing her basketball career. In her first few months in Iowa, she was also extremely homesick. She knew little about Iowa State women's basketball, and she wasn't sure she could play Division I basketball.
The ISU coaching staff wasn't really recruiting against other programs, as much as they were trying to convince her that playing for the Cyclones was a great move for her future. And that Ames could become her home away from home.
"My parents said to just try it, and that I could always come home," Lacey said. "That's what they were always saying to me, just to make me feel comfortable. I basically took it six months at a time. I knew I would be able to go home for three months in between high school and college, and then I would be able to get home and get comfortable, and talk to my family about it. I don't know if I knew what a big decision I was making."
Once Lacey committed and showed up for her first semester at Iowa State, the coaches knew she had a chance to be a special player. However, even they couldn't imagine that she would become the face of the program and a household name in the Ames area.
"I really felt that she was as talented of a kid as we've had here," Fennelly said. "The challenge would be how did she feel being away from home? Not just moving to a new school, but to a whole new culture, and a whole new country. Could she handle all of that other stuff? It wasn't about her physical skills. As she saw some success, she's become kind of a rock star around here.
"I don't think many people know what her real name is. When I say 'Alison', people look at me like they don't even know who I'm talking about. I think that all of that has been a good experience. She's a good player, she's a good person, and she's unique. When we get requests for players, it always starts with her. She's the face of our team. I knew that she had a chance to be really good. I wouldn't say that I thought it would all come together for her, but it certainly has."
Lacey had fairly low expectations in her freshman campaign. She thought she might come off the bench and contribute a little bit, but she never dreamed she would start. She actually made the starting lineup in her first career contest, but didn't join the starting five consistently until later in the season. She played all over the court and scored double figures in 13 games.
"In my freshman year, I didn't understand anything that was going on," Lacey said. "I didn't understand the Iowa rivalry. I didn't understand the plays. I didn't understand Iowa State and how big of a deal it was. And now I understand all of it a lot more, including what I'm looking for when I'm driving and who's going to be helping me, and who's going to be open, all the things that can't be taught unless they're experienced in a game setting. It's taken about three years for me to figure all this out. I've learned a lot but there's still a lot that I haven't figured out yet."
In a matter of three and a half seasons, Lacey has become one of the best players in Iowa State's storied women's basketball history. She already ranks 13th in ISU career scoring with 1,216 points. She ranks seventh in career 3-pointers and eighth in career assists. She continues to move up the charts and is currently leading the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. She ranks in the top five nationally in assists per game this season.
"As a basketball player, I think Coach Fennelly has taught me a lot of things," Lacey said. "When I left Australia, I was kind of done with basketball and wasn't really interested in it anymore. I was kind of over it, and I think he brought back the passion that I used to have. Just overall, my game has improved."
Fennelly agrees with Lacey's assessment.
"I think the biggest thing is that she is a much more well-rounded player," he said. "I've always told her that the good players can impact a game on both ends of the court, and good players can impact the game without having to be the leading scorer. I think she's doing that.
"When she was a freshman, she was a defensive liability and now I think she's one of the best defenders in our league. She's always been someone who can shoot and handle the ball. She's got a real even, almost low-key personality, and I don't think people realize how competitive she is. We've had our moments, and we will continue to have them, but in a weird way, I'd have to say that she's a lot like me. She doesn't tolerate people who don't do their best. She doesn't tolerate people who aren't passionate about what they do, and it frustrates her."
More important than any statistical category, Lacey has become the undisputed leader of this season's squad, and she was an integral part of the Cyclones' run to the NCAA Elite Eight last season. Even with five newcomers on this season's team, with Lacey running the show, anything is possible for the Cyclones.