Indiana’s first game of the 2021 Big Ten tournament on March 11 will mark exactly one year since the women’s basketball team was sent home last spring due to COVID-19.
A year ago, the Hoosiers were vying for a four seed in the NCAA Tournament, which meant tournament games in Assembly Hall. A year ago, Brenna Wise was looking to make her final mark on a program she worked so hard to revive with a deep run in March. A year ago, everything stopped instantly.
“Last year there were so many uncertainties when we were sent home,” Mackenzie Holmes said. “The fact that we get the opportunity to play in the postseason this year is something that we weren’t even sure was going to happen.”
Flash forward to now, and it has been a year of records for Indiana. The highest ranking in the AP Top 25 poll in program history at No. 9. The most conference wins in a season with 16. And almost assuredly, the highest seed in the NCAA Tournament the Indiana women have ever received.
Do those accomplishment take away the pain from missing out on an NCAA Tournament run last year? Indiana players have said no, but the Hoosiers may be more motivated now than ever to make up for what was taken a year ago.
“We were excited about the deep run we were hoping to make in the postseason last year,” head coach Teri Moren said. “Now you speed it up to where it is today and the excitement we have today is no different than we had a year ago. I think that our grateful meter is higher than it has ever been.”
A year ago, when the only way Moren could see the faces of her players was through zoom, they talked about how much they missed being in the gym together. Moren has a team full of workers, and to not be in the gym every day just didn’t feel right.
“I tell everybody all of the time, there is no secret sauce, there’s no magic pill to becoming a great player,” Moren said. “It happens because of your work.”
Luckily for Moren, it doesn’t always take a message from her to get her players to work hard. Moren mentioned Holmes, Ali Patberg, Grace Berger and Aleksa Gulbe as players who have a special kind of work ethic.
“These are kids that get in the gym and work on their craft every day and they get a little bit better every day,” Moren said. “The blessing that we have is that we have more than one that is willing to do that everyday.”
Now that the Hoosiers have been able to get back in the gym together, being grateful has been a main sentiment throughout the team. Grateful that they have a gym to practice in. Grateful they had teammates to lean on when they couldn’t go home to see their families for Christmas. And most of all, grateful that they have an opportunity to compete for a national championship this year.
Moren recently gave the team two consecutive off days in order to rest up before postseason play. And when a team plays 18 grueling Big Ten games in the span of just over two months, two days can feel like an eternity.
“Playing a Big Ten schedule, you have to grind it out every single night always playing good teams,” Berger said. “So I think we refreshed our minds, refreshed our bodies going into this week.”
Berger admits no amount of rest can prepare a team for potentially three days of Big Ten basketball in a row, but she said the team is ready. For Moren, it was important to give her team time to physically rest, but said the mental aspect was just as important.
“I think from a physical standpoint, we are the best shape we have ever been in our lives,” Moren said. “Mentally, you have to lean on your experience…We will lean on them, and Ali is built for this, I can tell you that. She is built for this moment and so is Grace Berger, and they will lead us without any doubt.”
The amount of experience on this team can’t be questioned. Moren and the players have said they are in incredible shape heading into postseason play. Indiana projects to be a three seed in the NCAA tournament, which sets up a favorable path. Holmes and Berger were recently named first-team All-Big Ten players, with Patberg on the second team.
So what is stopping the Hoosiers from a deep run in March? To put it simply, winning six games in a row against the best teams in the country is very difficult. Moren and the Hoosiers believe they have what it takes to make a deep run, and if anything is certain, the feeling of last year’s tournament being taken away will be at the front of their minds.
“We’re never taking a moment for granted again,” Berger said. “We are super excited to finally get a chance to show what we can do in the postseason.”