Illinois forward Ali Andrews drained two free throws to put the Illini up nine points with just under five minutes left in the second quarter. It looked like the No. 20 ranked Indiana women’s basketball team would need another epic second half comeback to avoid a crushing loss to an Illinois team that was 2-10 in conference before tonight.
But when Indiana has had its back against the wall this season, it has looked to no one else but Ali Patberg, a top-10 finalist for the 2020 Nancy Lieberman Award, which is given to the nation’s best point guard. After Andrews’ two made free throws, Patberg assisted Aleksa Gulbe on a layup, hit a 3-pointer and sunk a midrange jumper all in the final three minutes of the half to cut a nine-point deficit to two going into halftime.
From that point forward, Illinois’ lead would never get greater than two points, showing just how important that three-minute stretch from Patberg really was. Patberg has had equal, and many even better games statistically in her career, but it was her leadership and calm demeanor in adversity that proves she is one of the nation’s best point guards.
Patberg’s finished with 17 points, nine assists and five rebounds to lead the Hoosiers to a 59-54 road win versus Illinois. With this win, Indiana moves to 20-6 overall and 10-4 in conference. While it may seem like a routine win for the Hoosiers, this win marked the earliest point in a season in program history to win 20 games. The previous record was set at 20 wins in 29 games in both the 2007-2008 and 2016-2017 seasons.
“Sometimes all the wins aren’t pretty and we are leaving tonight with an ugly win, but we’re happy,” head coach Teri Moren said.
The Hoosiers were on the ropes early on, shooting just 11-for-30 in the first half. Mackenzie Holmes, a double-figure scorer on average, finished with zero points and only one rebound. But the luxury of playing two forwards that play essentially the same minutes is when one is having an off night, it is time for the other to step up.
And that’s exactly what Gulbe did in Thursday’s game. The sophomore forward finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and three blocks while having one of her more efficient shooting nights, going 7-for-9 from the field. It was also a welcomed sign that Gulbe was able to play 31 minutes and commit just two fouls after struggling with foul trouble throughout the season.
While the Hoosiers were able to leave Illinois with a win, it is a game that still leaves some questions moving forward. Problems such as turnovers and 3-point shooting that have plagued the Hoosiers for most of the season remained a problem Thursday. Indiana turned the ball over 17 times and each player that stepped foot on the court tonight committed at least one turnover.
Indiana continued to lower its 3-point percentage on the season, shooting 2-for-16 from beyond the arc Thursday. Patberg hit the team’s only two 3-pointers of the night, and it was enough to overcome poor shooting nights from Jaelynn Penn and Grace Berger, who shot 2-for-11 and 4-for-12 from the field, respectively.
These are issues that, at this point of the season, look like they will never be fixed, which is concerning for an Indiana team with high hopes for the month of March. But with the leadership and clutch shot-making ability of Patberg, the Hoosiers might be able to grind out close wins like this in the NCAA tournament.
The Hoosiers will return to Bloomington and host Ohio State on Sunday for National Girl and Women in Sports Day. Ohio State has hovered around the middle of the Big Ten for most of the year with a 7-5 conference record and are currently listed as a 10 seed according to Charlie Creme’s women’s basketball bracketology.
With just four games left in Big Ten play, it is unlikely that the Hoosiers can catch Iowa and Maryland, who are both two games above Indiana in the Big Ten rankings. Missing out on the regular season Big Ten title isn’t the end of the world for the Hoosiers. Next up, a chance to build some momentum with four winnable games to close the season.