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Hoosiers gain valuable tournament experience, 'feel the love' of growing fanbase during Elite Eight run

When a shooter is hot, they’re hot.

With 5:25 left in the game, Indiana trailed by just three points. Indiana head coach Teri Moren crouched down on the sideline and begged for a stop. Defense was how the Hoosiers reached the Elite Eight, and a stop is what they needed most down the stretch. 

Arizona's Cate Reese set a high ball screen for the PAC-12 leading scorer Aari McDonald, trying to free her up for another shot. Nicole Cardaño-Hillary went under the screen, but McDonald’s release was too quick. 

In a way, this was the dagger. Arizona took a 54-48 lead, and Indiana went on to score just five points in the final five minutes of game. Arizona defeated Indiana 66-53 in the Mercado Region Final to advance to the program’s first Final Four.

“I love this group,” Moren said. “It kills me that we couldn’t get them to Friday night...because they are such a fun, hardworking, high-character group that deserves a moment like this, but also a moment where they can celebrate getting themselves into the Final Four.”

Indiana celebrates after defeating 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 has set record after record this season, and is sent home with the feeling that this isn’t its last run. Moren said that this loss will serve as motivation for wanting to be back next year. The NCAA has granted each player an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19, which means the Hoosiers could return the entire roster for the 2021-2022 season.

Questions still have to be answered, though, as Ali Patberg would be entering her seventh year in college and the program has kept quiet about Jaelynn Penn’s midseason opt out. Still, Moren hopes this run served as a preview for future years, and had a simple message approaching the offseason. 

“We’ll get back to work,” Moren said. “That’s just what we do at Indiana.”

Among players returning for Indiana next year are Grace Berger and Mackenzie Holmes, who were named to the All-Mercado Region team after Monday night’s loss. Holmes was her usual efficient self down low, scoring 20 points on 9-for-15 shooting. 

Holmes scored 18 of her 20 points in the second quarter thanks to what Moren considered great entry passes from Indiana’s guards. This allowed Holmes to catch deep in the paint and make a quick move in the basket.

To combat this, Arizona started to bring double teams in the fourth quarter. Due to Indiana’s lack of bench depth and Kiandra Browne leaving in the third quarter with an injury, it was all up to Holmes and Gulbe to carry the weight in the post. 

Moren said in the second half she could tell that Holmes was starting to fatigue, which knocked her off her game. Moren noticed that Holmes was drifting outside the paint, which caused her to take uncharacteristic jump shots and floaters.

“That’s not Mack,” Moren said.

Each of Indiana’s starters played at least 36 minutes on Monday night, which is a tough ask after a quick turnaround. Dating back to Indiana’s opening round game versus VCU, the Indiana bench scored just 11 points during the tournament, eight of which came when the game was already decided against Belmont. 

This has led to an extreme reliance on the starting five, who simply started to run out of gas. 

”We have played a lot of games in a short time and we have a short bench,” Moren said.

Though Indiana had two of the region’s best players, the MVP was on Arizona’s side on March 29. Aari McDonald caught fire in San Antonio, shooting 5-for-6 from beyond the arc. McDonald finished 12-for-20 from the field, which was good for 33 points.

Moren went with Cardaño-Hillary guarding McDonald to start, but it didn’t matter who was in front of her. Berger and Patberg also guarded her throughout the game, but McDonald was hitting contested shots and there was not much Indiana could do to slow her down.

”She’s as fast of a player that we have faced all year,” Moren said. “There’s a reason she has scored 2,000 points in her career. She’s a very difficult matchup.”

While it felt at times like McDonald couldn’t miss from 3, Indiana finished the game 0-for-9 from long range. All in all, Moren said she was happy with the looks, but shots just didn’t fall. Indiana had a number of open 3s down the stretch that could have kept it close, but no one could find the bottom of the net.

Moren said she is proud of all that her team has accomplished this year, but is not stopping here. She wants to make deep runs in the tournament a normal feeling. Holmes said afterwards that it shouldn’t be a surprise in future years when people see Indiana in the Elite Eight.

Setting goals and talking about what it takes to get there has been part of Moren’s philosophy during this run, and that will only continue. Moren said after the Sweet 16 win over NC State that there is no reason to not have high expectations because of all of the work her team has done.

“We have said that from day one when we arrived in Bloomington that our goals are always going to be set high,” Moren said. “...We still have unfinished business.”

During this run in the NCAA Tournament, it has been clear how much support the women’s program has gained from the Bloomington community. Indiana introduced Mike Woodson as the new head coach of the men’s team on Monday, but there was still palpable buzz around campus in anticipation for the women’s Elite Eight game later that night.

Moren thinks it has been easy for Indiana fans to rally around her team because of who they are as people. She said players on her team represent the university well through their leadership and how much they care for each other.

“They’re great players, but they’re even better people,” Moren said.

Over the past few weeks, the Hoosiers have spent more time than usual around each other due to the NCAA Tournament bubble. Indiana has stayed in a hotel in San Antonio throughout the tournament run, which has allowed for plenty of team bonding and talk of things other than basketball.

Indiana celebrates in the locker room after defeating Belmont to advance to the first Sweet 16 in program history. (Photo courtesy of IU Athletics)

Moren played four years of college basketball at Purdue, and said times like these are what her team will remember the most. 

“I remember very few games,” Moren said. “What I remember is the time I got to spend with my teammates.”

Moren thinks this experience will help her team be more prepared for future tournament runs. A struggle down the stretch against Arizona was escaping the trap. Moren said this is something the team expected and prepared for during the game, but was difficult to overcome in live action.

Indiana had a hard time freeing players up for passes and helping out the player that was being trapped. This forced the Hoosiers to play out of their normal rhythm and offensive pace down the stretch. But moving forward, Moren said playing top competition is valuable as the Hoosiers aim to continue success in March.

Moren said the team will take a few weeks to rest their bodies, but after that, the Hoosiers are right back to work. And as Indiana has sustained steady success over the past few years, setting new program records with each tournament win, Moren can’t wait to get back to an Assembly Hall that is packed with fans old and new.

“I think the people in the Bloomington community have fallen in love with women’s basketball,” Moren said. “...We can feel the love.”

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