INDIANAPOLIS — Ali Patberg drove the lane and threw the ball towards the rim in desperation.
Indiana trailed by seven points with under two minutes in the game, and needed a basket in the worst way possible. The ball made soft contact with the rim and trickled in as the whistle blew.
Foul. Made basket. And one.
It was a spectacular play by Indiana’s sixth-year senior, but the sentiment represented Indiana’s offense in the second half.
Indiana shot 37 percent from the field in the second half and missed all six 3-point attempts Thursday. Ten second-half turnovers didn’t help, either.
The majority of fans socially-distanced at Bankers Life Fieldhouse were cheering on the Hoosiers, but ultimately left disappointed. Indiana played one of its weaker second halves of the season, and fell to Michigan State 69-61.
“It makes me sick to my stomach that we performed like that in front of them,” Patberg said.
Indiana allowed the fewest first-half points to an opponent on Thursday since Feb. 24 at Wisconsin, but the second half was a different story. Nia Clouden poured in 30 points, and Indiana had nothing to slow her down.
“Clouden, she was unstoppable and we didn’t have an answer for her,” Patberg said.
Early in the third quarter, Nicole Cardaño-Hillary picked up her fourth foul of the game, leaving the Hoosiers’ backcourt thin. Jaelynn Penn opted out of the rest of the season on Feb. 7, leaving Cardaño-Hillary to slot into a starting role.
The Hoosiers already lost a bit of depth with the departure of Penn, who was a three-and-a-half year starter, but limiting Cardaño-Hillary’s minutes put Indiana in an unprecedented situation.
There wasn’t a young freshman to step up or another guard off the bench to provide outside shooting, so Indiana rode the players who brought the team to a program-best No. 9 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll: Grace Berger and Ali Patberg.
At times, this felt like the only consistent source of offense for Indiana. Leaning on your two best guards isn’t a bad thing, but it begs an important question as Indiana’s focus shifts to the NCAA Tournament.
Does Indiana have enough complementary pieces to make a deep NCAA Tournament run?
Mackenzie Holmes is certainly a high-level player in the Big Ten, but Indiana’s offensive mentality doesn’t lend itself well to feeding the post when it’s losing. Michigan State was 3-for-4 from 3 in the fourth quarter, so trading twos for 3’s simply doesn’t add up.
Holmes scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, which is in line with her season average. But on a night when Indiana shoots 11-for-18 from the free-throw line and 2-for-11 from 3, it wasn’t enough.
Even further, Indiana’s bench scored zero points on Thursday night. It’s clear that moving forward to the NCAA Tournament, Indiana desperately needs another complementary scorer to step up in a meaningful way.
With a quarterfinal loss to No. 7-seeded Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament, Indiana will also likely see its NCAA Tournament seed drop. Before March 11, ESPN’s Charlie Creme projected Indiana to earn a three seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But as the Hoosiers drive back to Bloomington and watch the rest of the conference tournaments, this projection will surely drop. Indiana still looks to earn a four-seed in the tournament, but any hope of defeating Rutgers or Maryland to jump to the two-seed line is out the window.
“We’re going to be a lot better from this,” Patberg said. “This sucks right now…We have to own how we played tonight.”
While head coach Teri Moren and the Hoosiers were frustrated in Thursday’s performance, Moren said there is no time to dwell on the negative.
“I have one of the most competitive groups that I’ve ever had. They’re disappointed, yet they’re looking forward to what’s next.”