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Wise, Hoosiers hold out hope of hosting NCAA Tournament with Big Ten Tournament quickly approaching

After taking care of business with a 78-60 win at Michigan on Sunday, the No. 20 Indiana Hoosiers claimed their 23rd win of the season, which tied a program record set during the Hoosiers’ 2017-2018 WNIT championship run. But in a season in which Indiana also set a record for number of conference wins with 13, the Hoosiers have bigger aspirations heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

The Hoosiers’ second half dominance against Nebraska last Thursday secured a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament and shows Head Coach Teri Moren has her team peaking at the right time. After dropping three games in a row in the middle of a grueling Big Ten schedule that could feature eight teams in the NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers recovered to win nine of its final 11 games and claim the four-seed.

Jaelynn Penn looks to drive against Minnesota in last season's Big Ten Tournament. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

Indiana picked up three key wins in a row to finish the season and earn much needed rest heading into postseason play. The tournament tips off on March 4 with 13-seed Illinois versus 12-seed Wisconsin followed by 14-seed Penn State versus 11-seed Minnesota, but the Hoosiers will not take the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis until March 6 at approximately 2:30 p.m.

In ESPN’s Charlie Creme’s March 2 Bracketology, Indiana was slated as a four-seed for the first time in over a month after a strong end to the season. Keep in mind the difference between a four and five seed for Indiana, or any team for that matter, has serious implications for tournament success. In the women’s NCAA Tournament, each of the top-four seeds in each region host the first two rounds of the tournament. 

But when the Hoosiers woke up on the morning of March 3, Creme revealed that Indiana still has work to do in order to host two potential NCAA tournament games. Though DePaul lost its final two regular season games, it jumped Indiana for the final four seed. While this is all still speculation, Indiana might need to accomplish something it hasn’t done this year, even after recording so many program milestones: beat the Maryland Terrapins. 

Indiana’s first loss to the Terrapins came on Jan. 20 in College Park when Shakira Austin led Maryland to a 76-62 victory with 22 points and five rebounds. The Hoosiers were outscored by 16 points in the second half of the second matchup on Feb. 6 when Maryland won 79-69. Neither matchup ended up being particularly competitive, especially since Indiana turned the ball over 32 combined times in the two games. 

While taking down Maryland will obviously be a tough task, it is likely what it will take for Indiana to jump back to the four-seed line and host two potential NCAA Tournament games. Brenna Wise strongly believes she will play at Assembly Hall again this season.

“Deep down inside I don’t believe that tonight is the last night I will play in Assembly Hall,” Wise said on Feb. 27. “I am still holding on to that and working on that. If it is, I am forever grateful and will never forget this night, but it will continue to be the driver over the next 10 days.”

Those 10 days Wise mentioned are now passing by quickly as the Hoosiers prepare for the Big Ten Tournament. Its first opponent is still unknown, but Indiana will take on the winner of five-seed Rutgers versus the winner of the Illinois and Wisconsin matchup on March 4. If the bracket stays true to the chalk, Indiana will take on Rutgers on March 6. These two teams haven’t played since Dec. 31, a 66-56 road win for Indiana.

Jaelynn Penn and Grace Berger starred for the Hoosiers in the team’s only game against Rutgers, scoring 14 and 13 points, respectively. The biggest challenge for Indiana ahead of this potential matchup will be guarding point guard Arella Guirantes, who was named to the First-Team All-Big Ten. The Hoosiers have two first-team representatives of their own in Ali Patberg and Grace Berger, but limiting Guirantes will remain a challenge.

In the first matchup, Guirantes scored 23 points on 9-for-24 shooting. Guirantes is an efficient scorer, averaging 20 points per game on 41 percent shooting. Moren has said all year that Indiana will hang its hat on its defense, and with a matchup against an elite scorer like Guirantes, there is no better time for the entire team to lock in on the defensive end. 

Grace Berger pulls up for a jumper against Iowa in last season's Big Ten Tournament. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

A win against Rutgers would help Indiana’s case to jump to the four-seed line, but it likely won’t matter unless it can take down a Maryland team that has won 14 straight games. Maryland poses a tough challenge with such a deep roster that contains unanimous First-Team All-Big Ten guard Kaila Charles, as well as Big Ten Freshman of the Year Ashley Owusu to go along with four other Terrapins who received Big Ten honors. 

A near-perfect performance from Indiana is likely what it will take to defeat Maryland, and that starts with two areas of Indiana’s game that have plagued the Hoosiers so often this year: three-point shooting and turnovers. Fourth quarter collapses versus Iowa, Northwestern and Ohio State can be credited with too many turnovers late in the game, and have to be a point of emphasis as Indiana uses extra rest to prepare for this weekend’s tournament.

Indiana’s two most recent wins looked similar to dominant performances earlier in the season, which is exactly the kind of momentum a team needs heading into the postseason. While a 14-for-39 effort for the the Hoosiers from beyond the arc is nearly 10 percent higher than the team’s season average, Indiana still turned the ball over a combined 29 times in the last two games.

As Indiana approaches a Big Ten Tournament with major NCAA Tournament seeding implications, the idea of hosting NCAA Tournament games will be a driving force to motivate the Hoosiers. When Indiana won the WNIT in 2018, there were more than 13,000 fans in attendance, and if Wise’s mindset can propel the Hoosiers to a potential victory over Maryland, expect the Indiana faithful to be in full force. 

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