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After defeating NC State in Sweet 16, No. 6 Indiana preps for rematch with No. 2 Wolfpack in Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Last year Indiana defeated the NC State Wolfpack in a thriller of a basketball game 73-70 in the Sweet 16 in San Antonio. All five Hoosier starters were in double figures, and it was quite the gutsy and emotional win Teri Moren’s team needed to take the program to the next level. And now, the two teams meet up again in the Big 10/ACC Challenge for what is to be another exciting top-10 matchup for the Hoosiers. 

Indiana players celebrate after beating NC State in the Sweet 16 at the Alamodome on March 27, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Indiana was able to win last year’s game thanks to a huge run to start out the second half, as the Hoosiers were at one point leading by 14 after being down 7-0 to start off the game. It was the IU defense turning NC State over and getting baskets on the offensive end that helped Indiana go on that run, as they forced a very good Wolfpack team into 17 turnovers. Mackenzie Holmes and Aleksa Gulbe’s interior defense sparked Ali Patberg and Nicole Cardaño-Hillary to get out in transition and use their speed to score.

The Hoosiers also did a good job at scoring in a variety of ways to keep NC State on its heels defensively. With the threat of Patberg and Cardaño-Hillary driving, Grace Berger’s mid range, and the play of Gulbe and Holmes inside, the Indiana offense looked unstoppable in the second half. Although NC State came back and eventually cut it to two points, Indiana was able to hang on for the upset victory.

Taking a look at the Wolfpack

Not much has changed for the No. 2 Wolfpack since last season, as they return all five of their starters from last year. Elissa Cunane and Jakia Brown-Tucker headline the returners, as they were named to the ACC’s Blue Ribbon team at the start of the season. NC State’s dynamic duo combines for 24.7 points per game, so limiting their touches and opportunities at the basket will be crucial for No. 6 Indiana. Moren recognizes the talent and the impact that Cunane has on the game.

“Cunane is a problem,” Moren said. “She’s outstanding with her back to the basket, [and] she has a good 3 or 4 inches over Mackenzie and Aleksa. So we’re going to have to pick and choose when we double her and make her guess like we did a year ago.”

Ali Patberg celebrates as IU plays NC State in the Sweet 16 at the Alamodome on March 27, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

But this Wolfpack team is a little bit like Stanford in a way, as they have multiple threats on the offensive end that can beat you. Raina Perez was a big focal point last year for Moren, as she was the second leading scorer in the last matchup between the two teams. As much of a threat as she is from beyond the arc, she also has the ability to make crafty moves to the basket and score inside. I would expect Moren to throw a couple of different matchups on her to limit her scoring.

There will be some news faces for Indiana that they haven’t seen from NC State yet. Kayla Jones missed the Sweet 16 matchup, so the Hoosiers will have to figure out a game plan to slow her down. Being a threat from 3-point range and having the size to score inside, it will be essential that Gulbe and Holmes will need to have an outstanding defensive performance on Thursday night in order to stop her. 

Rutgers transfer Diamond Johnson has also been getting some valuable minutes from the Wolfpack. Being the threat she is from beyond the arc, Cardaño-Hillary, Patberg and even Berger will have to keep an eye on her at all times. Having not played Rutgers last season, it should be interesting to see how Moren gameplans for a player like Johnson. The team will have to play some outstanding defense if the Hoosiers want to beat a high-octane Wolfpack offense. 

“One of the things we’ve always tried to do is be stingy defensively, no matter who we’re playing,” Moren said. “The tendencies are really important as we go into this game in terms of what these individuals are capable of doing. They’re outstanding from beyond the arc, so we’re going to have to try and run every one of them off the 3-point line.”

As good as NC State is on offense, its defense has really been the story to start things off this season. The Wolfpack have been giving up around 55 points per game to opposing teams this year, including only 60 to a talented Maryland team. NC State has also been forcing teams into double-digit turnovers every game as well as limiting their turnovers offensively, showing their versatility as a team overall.

Keys for IU

Nicole Cardano-Hillary battles for possession in the Sweet 16 at Alamodome on March 27, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Transition offense will be the biggest key for Indiana, as that is what won the game for IU last year. Patberg and Cardaño-Hillary got to the basket with ease last year after forcing some Wolfpack turnovers. Knowing that NC State has had a strong start on defense, the speed of Cardaño-Hillary and Patberg will play a key role in not allowing the Wolfpack to set their half-court defense. 

While they are in the halfcourt, it will be crucial that Indiana does not turn the ball over and give NC State extra opportunities. Last game against Miami, the Hoosiers had 24 turnovers, setting a new season high. If IU does the same thing against a much better NC State team, things might not go so well on Thursday night. 

Playing confident and with energy will also be another key for the Hoosiers if they want to take home a win at Assembly Hall. The Wolfpack come into this game feeling very good about themselves, as they just dominated two tournament teams from last year in Washington State and Maryland. A fast start in the first quarter would do wonders for the Hoosiers going down the stretch in this game.

A rematch of one of college basketball’s best games last year should be a fun one to watch. With Indiana winning the last matchup, I expect to see the Wolfpack come out with lots of energy to start the game off. But the question of who can maintain that energy and keep the same mentality going for 40 minutes will decide this game. 

“This is going to be an NC State team that’s going to come in here with a lot of motivation,” Moren said. “We knocked them out of their opportunity to perhaps get to a Final Four. So I think that there’s a lot of motivation on their part from their staff to their players.”

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