Iowa State's Bridget Carleton is right at home with Cyclones

Canadian Bridget Carleton was drawn to the small-town feel of Iowa State, where she has fit right in and become one of the program's all-time best players. AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

A smile seems to be the default facial expression for Iowa State senior Bridget Carleton.

"She's a smiley kid," said her mother, Carrie Carleton, who was Bridget's high school coach in Chatham, Ontario. "She always smiles, even when she's playing. Her passion for the game comes through."

The Cyclones' 6-foot-1 guard has the kind of personality that coaches crave.

"We all want the face-of-the-program kind of player, and Bridget does that for us," Iowa State's Bill Fennelly said. "She is a kid that loves to play at Iowa State. She's embraced everything we've asked her to do."

And she's having a heck of a senior season, which her parents -- both teachers -- have seen as much of as they can in person. In February, a busload of Carleton's fans from her family's home base in Canada, will make the 22-hour round trip to Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa, to cheer again for one of the town's favorite daughters.

They've done that the past two seasons, too. This season, they'll see the best version yet of Carleton, who is averaging career bests of 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.5 steals. She leads the No. 20 Cyclones in all those categories, plus blocks with 27. She's the only player on a Top 25 team who currently leads her squad in all five categories.

"She's the definition of a stat stuffer; she's always doing something to help us," Fennelly said. "She was first-team all-Big 12 player as a junior, and I think she's light years better than she was last year."

Fennelly and Carleton attribute that in part to her time with the Canadian senior national team that competed in the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup last fall. At 21, Carleton was the youngest player for Canada and relished the chance to pick the brains of others on the squad, including the New York Liberty's Kia Nurse and the Indiana Fever's Natalie Achonwa.

"Kia and I were roommates for a lot of the summer and talked a lot," Carleton said of the former UConn star. "We still have constant communications about life, and just random things. She was really helpful: Someone to lean on and get information from. We worked really well together.

"One of the big things was knowing personnel -- who you are playing with, and what they are able to do. People have their strengths and weaknesses. I was able to translate that to what I'm doing here."

Versatility is something that Carrie, who played basketball at Grand Valley State in Michigan, stressed for Bridget, one of three daughters. Bridget says her mom is the basketball player she admires most.

"My role model since I was a little girl has been my mom," Carleton said. "She played Division II basketball and just loves the game. We played one-on-one the other day at our practice facility, and she just had so much fun. I think that passion she has is where I get mine from."

How old was she when she first beat her mom at one-on-one?

"This year," Carleton said, then laughed. "No, actually, it was probably Grade 9, I think. She wasn't ticked off. She's competitive, but it's more a fun thing we do together."

As a youngster, Carleton also competed in volleyball, badminton and hockey, the latter coached by her dad, Rob. Basketball became her primary focus around seventh grade.

When it came time to picking a college, Carleton wasn't into any recruiting hype. She decided to visit a few schools over Christmas break her junior year, and Iowa State stood out.

She played in a big tournament in North Carolina later that school year, which exposed her to more college programs that became interested and started calling. The Cyclones were worried they might lose her. But Carleton didn't take the calls; her mind was already made up. The coaching staff had won her over, as did the state itself.

"There are a lot of small towns in Iowa, and that's an environment I love," she said. "It reminds me of home, and that's part of why I've enjoyed my time here so much. People here are so genuine, with the love they have for Iowa State.

"I go to the grocery store or the restaurant, and they say, 'Great game last night!' That's so nice to know they care and they're watching and want the best for you."

"We all want the face-of-the-program kind of player, and Bridget does that for us." Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly on senior Bridget Carleton

The Cyclones played a "homecoming" game in December for Carleton in Chatham against Eastern Michigan. It was a chance for everyone there to celebrate the career she has had -- one she plans to continue beyond Iowa State.

"Playing professionally is a goal of mine, whether it's in the WNBA or overseas," said Carleton, who also wants to keep playing with the Canadian national team. "Natalie and Kia have been really helpful. I didn't know much about what professional life was like, so talking to them about the day-by-day routine, it helps prepare me. I have somewhat of an idea what it would be like, and I'm excited about the opportunity."

But first she has big goals left with the Cyclones (14-5 overall, 4-3 Big 12). Three of their toughest league games -- against Texas, West Virginia and Baylor -- account for the conference losses. Two of those were on the road. They'll face all three again in February, with the Lady Bears and Mountaineers coming to Ames. Wednesday, Iowa State fell 84-69 at No. 2 Baylor, with Carleton scoring 28 points.

Next up is Oklahoma State on Saturday. Iowa State was 13-17 Carleton's freshman season and 14-17 last season. Her one trip to the Big Dance was in 2017, when the Cyclones lost in the first round to Syracuse.

"I don't want that to happen again," Carleton said. "We want to make a run in the NCAA tournament."

It will take her making a lot of big plays, but she's ready.

"I want that responsibility to have the ball in my hands at the end of the shot clock or end of games," Carleton said. "I'm OK if it doesn't go well; I'll still take that responsibility. And if does go well, our team got the win."

As Fennelly said, "That's the kind of kid she is. The chemistry on this team is the best we've had in a decade. She's enjoying this moment on this team."