INDIANAPOLIS – Eight years ago, head coach Teri Moren had a novel vision for the Indiana women’s basketball program. On Saturday, that vision came to fruition.
For the first time in 20 years, the Hoosiers are championship bound.
“Our goal when we set out here on Wednesday night was to be here until Sunday,” Moren said. “...If I have to put my money on a team, it's going to be these guys.”
Sitting on the doorstep of a Big Ten Tournament title, No. 5 seed Indiana capitalized immensely off rebounds, assists and field goal shooting to pull out a 70-62 victory over top-seeded Ohio State. With no lead change the entire game, the flame from a fiery Hoosier start never extinguished.
“We came in so prepared, even with the one-day turnaround,” guard Ali Patberg said. “We were confident with the game plan, all we had to do was execute it.”
Indiana’s starting lineup looked a little bit different Saturday, with sophomore guard Chloe Moore-McNeil taking the place of senior forward Aleksa Gulbe due to an unrelated COVID-19 illness. Gulbe’s health condition was unknown until Saturday morning, but playing small ball until Gulbe checked in during the middle of the second didn’t seem to be an issue for Indiana at all.
The first basket of the game was kissed off the glass by Moore-McNeil and she really didn’t quit after that, tallying 11 points in the first half and playing 38 out of the 40 minutes.
“She (Moore-McNeil) was terrific…she was terrific,” Moren said. “I just love how she came out. It was like her hair was on fire.”
For the first time in 20 years, Indiana will play for a B1G Championship.
However, it would be the contributions from Chloe Moore-McNeil that would lift the Hoosiers over Ohio State.
The latest on #iuwbb from @carlobarone12. pic.twitter.com/UZE8iwrRaC
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) March 6, 2022
The silver lining of junior forward Mackenzie Holmes being out due to injury for over a month was that it gave a sixth man such as Moore-McNeil so many opportunities to play small and out of position in significant conference matchups. Now, Moore-McNeil looks as confident as ever, and even more so, comfortable with those fast and aggressive downhill drives to the basket. Not to mention the obvious range she has.
The interesting thing about this Indiana team is that anybody can have a 20-point night. At times during this season, the Hoosiers have struggled staying consistent on both offense and defense. However, Saturday’s game proved that we really don’t see everything that goes on behind the scenes in regards to the team's chemistry on both ends of the floor. Saturday’s conquest was a true team win, with everybody sharing the sugar between 24 field goals, 20 assists, 50 percent 3-point shooting, and most importantly, 37 rebounds to OSU’s 30.
“I want to pass the ball to Ali and drain that 3 every time,” guard Nicole Cardaño-Hillary said. “That kind of willingness to pass and to get the best shot rather than a good shot is really what makes our team so strong.”
When Patberg is hot, she knows it. Sticking her tongue out after a triple, her face beaming from smiling so big, then nonchalantly running back down the stretch — defensively, she was very reliable and played a vital role in setting up aggressive plays that would maximize her teammates opportunities for a shot. Patberg was the second leading scorer Saturday afternoon with 15 points.
Guard Grace Berger exploited her ability to be the backcourt facilitator, adding 10 points, six rebounds and seven assists. Sticking with the outstanding guard play, Cardaño-Hillary recorded her first double-double of the season, leading Indiana with 16 points and 11 rebounds, defending like a bear trying to give out a hug.
“That's a compliment,” Cardaño-Hillary said in response to opponents calling her a “gnat” who is “annoying” on defense.
Indiana’s trust in Holmes builds more game after game, but more importantly, she is beginning to trust herself again.
Holmes recorded her second straight game in double digits with 12 points, and her teammates were able to comfortably find her in the post to let her do her thing. With Holmes being out for so long, it was a tough reboot — trying to work her back into the mix — but the Hoosiers have found many different ways to win games this year, with or without Holmes. Saturday’s contest can attest to Indiana’s ability in not letting adversity break them and their ability to survive this long in tournament play, especially as they came in fresh off a three-game losing skid.
“They're tough, right?” Moren said. “They're tough, they're resilient, they're together, they're connected, their chemistry is off the charts, they hang their hat on the defensive end, they're disciplined, I could go on and on.”
As tears welled up in her eyes during postgame, Moren said she was humbled by how committed these women she has the privilege of coaching are, and how special it is to watch and take part in history unraveling right before their very eyes.
“When people talk about Indiana basketball, we don't want to be exclusive just to men's basketball,” Moren said. “We want people talking about the women's basketball program as well, and that's been the goal.”
The showing and amount of love from Hoosier nation Saturday afternoon had to have aided again in such an epoch-making win. When Gulbe checked in for the first time, Indiana fans got on their feet and roared so loud you could hear it all the way from Bloomington. Men, women and children in candy stripes reached for the stars when Holmes and Berger threw their hands up at them, hinting at them to get loud.
The team knew that a special kind of energy was needed, and Hoosier nation responded.
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) March 6, 2022
Something has been brewing under the table for Indiana, and Sunday’s championship final against No. 2 seed Iowa, set to tip at 4 p.m., will be the ultimate test.
The Hawkeyes toppled the Hoosiers two times in a 48-hour period just under two weeks ago, leaving Indiana heartbroken. But that was two weeks ago.
I can imagine that Indiana has never been hungrier for a win. Beating the same team three times in one season is difficult for any team to do, even one with Caitlin Clark. But, the Hoosiers seem as ready as ever for the contest. They've faced adversity and taken the losses, but it's all led to a possible Big Ten title.