Mother-daughter time for the Carletons happened under a hoop in a high school gym. Bridget would shoot. Mom Carrie would rebound. They’d talk about their days. The rhythmic swish and bounce provided the soundtrack.
Carrie is a physical education teacher and was Bridget’s coach at John McGregor Secondary School in Chatham, Ont., and those hours after the final school bell had rung helped Carleton eventually develop into one of the top NCAA players, but were bigger than basketball.
“It was awesome,” Carleton said. “I think that’s where our relationship grew as mother and daughter, we spent a lot of time in the gym together, we were able to share a passion for basketball.
“And it was just a lot of fun. There was never negative energy. She helped me when I was in my low times, and she was there for me during my good times too, so I think that really grew our relationship. And it’s really cool that we have a really special relationship because of it.”
The 21-year-old Carleton is having a huge senior season for Iowa State. She’s leading the Big 12 conference in scoring with 20.5 points a game, and on Monday evening was named one of the 20 finalists for the Wooden Award as the most outstanding player in U.S. college basketball. She was also added Tuesday to the “Wade Watch” list of candidates for the 2019 Wade Trophy, presented to the NCAA’s top female player.
The six-foot-one guard is also considered among the most statistically complete players in the NCAA, averaging 8.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks a night.
On Feb. 16, Carleton’s parents plus 46 friends and family members will board a bus to make the 22-hour round trip from Chatham to Ames – which is virtually a straight shot west – for the Cyclones’ game against Oklahoma State.
Carrie Carleton, who played college basketball at Grand Valley State in Michigan, and husband Rob, who’s also a teacher, estimate they’ve seen about a third of Bridget’s college games live. The Carletons have been to nine of the 10 schools in the Big 12.
“When she first decided that that was the place for her, and we totally agreed with her, we said ‘OK, I don’t know how this is going to work out, we won’t be in the stands like we were for all your other years,“’ Carrie said. “Bridget said ‘That’s OK.’ But we go as much as we can. It’s really cool, we really enjoy it going to see a new city and explore a little bit, and so her basketball experience has taken us all over the place.”
And for the games they can’t make, their dining room in Chatham is transformed into a veritable theatre, with spare chairs set out in front of the TV for friends to drop by.
On Nov. 21, the Cyclones travelled to Chatham to honour Carleton with a “home game” against Eastern Michigan.
“Watching that video this morning, I was tearing up again,” Carrie said. “It was awesome for Chatham to be able to see that level of basketball right here in our little town … the whole city was very excited about it.”
Ames, a city of 66,000 just north of Des Moines, has embraced Carleton as well. Young girls at Cyclones games clutch tiny Canadian flags. Carleton recently surprised one of her fans at her basketball practice, a request from the star-struck girl’s dad.
Carleton was Canada’s youngest player at the FIBA World Cup in September, and could become a cornerstone of the national team program.
“She’s having a phenomenal season, and it is fun to watch from a distance,” said Canada’s head coach Lisa Thomaidis. “We see her as the future of our team, and someone who can step into a role that perhaps (34-year-old guard) Kim Gaucher has been taking on for our team.
“So we kind of see Bridget in a little bit of the same mould, that type of player who’s highly intelligent, obviously she can shoot it, but the fact that she’s doing a number of other things for her team at Iowa State this year is a great sign of things to come. And she’s kind of an understated player, she doesn’t do the flashy things, but she does all of the other things, all of the intangibles really really well.”
Indeed, Carleton’s role has expanded in her senior season. While the Cyclones offence invariably went through the Canadian, the team has added some offensive pieces that have allowed Carleton’s game to flourish in other ways.
“I think I’ve grown a lot over the last year,” Carleton said. “Last year there was a lot of pressure on me to create my shot, do what I needed to do to help keep our team in games and win some games. This year we have a lot more weapons … we have other girls knocking down shots, being able to get to the rim, we have post players making post moves and finishing around the basket.”
Cyclones coach Bill Fennelly told reporters recently that he challenged Carleton’s teammates by taking her off the floor during practice and saying “‘OK, let’s see if we can score.“’ “And we go a long time at practice against the scout team and didn’t score,” he said.
“We have the best player in the league on our team. And that makes everyone better. And when you take that off your team, I would say this – I won’t be nearly as good of a coach as I am right now. Not that I’m good now. But, it’ll change.”
Carleton is expected to be a WNBA draft pick in April, and her excellent play has boosted Iowa State to a No. 22 national ranking.
Tip Ins: Three Canadians made the men’s Wooden Award top-20 list: R.J. Barrett (Duke), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Virginia Tech), and Ignas Brazdeikis (Michigan).