Hoosiers on the Rise
They were in their own little world and it was a mighty fine one to take refuge in as the Indiana University women’s basketball team put on a march to the Elite Eight in March of 2021.
Hunkered down in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament bubble in San Antonio as protection from COVID-19, the Hoosiers operated in near-privacy, but hardly in anonymity, 1,150 miles from their home base of Bloomington, Indiana.
As IU battled past Virginia Commonwealth, Belmont and touted North Carolina State, making its own stand in the shadow of the Alamo, they created a frenzy of fandom long distance.
Players were physically cut off from their regular universal sphere, but not technologically. Phones and texts and videos and the like were still in working order. Fans gathered in restaurants and bars watching the greatest run in Indiana lady hoops history with players aware of, but not in the midst of, Hoosiermania.
“Only by social media, Twitter, we had a sense there was a lot of excitement,” said guard Ali Patberg. “They recognize us more on the street now. There is still a buzz.”
In a place where basketball is pretty much viewed as the national pastime, in a community that over the decades has regularly lost its mind over the accomplishments of the men’s basketball team under such tenders of the flame as Branch McCracken and Bob Knight, for once women’s basketball reigned. The queens of the court finished 21-6, the Elite Eight finish their best ever, and with a mob of returning and talented players populating the roster, are poised to do it all over again — or do better.
The Hoosiers were voted No. 8 in the Associated Press pre-season poll for 2021-22 and while they think that’s nice, they believe they only sampled the appetizers last season and are now ready for the main course.
Strangers applauded and congratulated them, basketball followers appreciated the performance, yet there is a part of guard Grace Berger who wants to put a lid on the attitude because she feels the Hoosiers “haven’t accomplished anything.” By her definition “accomplished” means winning a national crown and Indiana did not even win the Big Ten Conference title, so there is much more work and sweat to invest before claiming satisfaction.
No one was happier to hear key players somehow simultaneously reveling in what they did on the court while also downplaying it than coach Teri Moren. That is exactly how she wants her players to think.
“That’s good that they feel that way,” Moren said.
When Moren, 52, first appeared on the sidelines as a head college coach 21 years ago, it was apparent batteries were included. Maybe she has slept since then, maybe not. But she probably has to fuel up less frequently than a hybrid vehicle.
From Seymour, Indiana, in the southern part of the state, roughly equidistant between the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500, she was a top player on a first-rate high school team that was a state finalist and then competed for a Purdue team that reached the NCAAs three times and won a Big Ten title.
When Moren took over the program at Indianapolis University for the 2000-01 season she had been an assistant coach for nine years at three schools, including Butler down the road. Heading into the current season, her eighth in charge at IU after a stint at Indiana State, her record is 347-210. Moren’s Hoosiers have won at least 21 games six years in a row and create more havoc for opponents each season while following her motto of “Graduate. Win. Serve.”
Granted a raise and contract extension, it would be easy for Moren to pause for a moment’s reflection on achievements catalogued at IU, but she has not transferred her foot from the accelerator to the brakes. Rather she has embraced the notion that if working at 60 mph wrought what it did, then imagine what working at a 75 mph pace might produce?
IU has won as many as 24 games in a season under Moren, captured a WNIT championship, been to an Elite Eight, but never has returned such a seasoned team.
“She wants us to be one of the premier programs in college basketball,” Berger said. “It is constantly building. This is the year.”
Partially through the largesse of the NCAA granting all athletes who put up with the coronavirus-disrupted last season being granted a bonus year of eligibility, the Hoosiers are awash in experience. All starters return and Patberg will eventually depart with a graduate degree.
Junior Mackenzie Holmes, a 6-foot-3 forward from Maine, was the leading scorer and rebounder in 2020-21 with numbers of 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds. Berger, a 6-foot guard from Louisville, averaged 15.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and totaled 124 assists. Patberg, a 5-11 guard, hit for 14.0 ppg and had 99 assists.
Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, a third guard who started 17 times, scored 8.5 points a game. She has been labeled a “pest” on defense, but said to ask the offensive players she guards if the word is an accurate description. Forward Aleksa Gulbe, a junior from Latvia, averaged 9.0 ppg
Jaelynn Penn (9.5 points) also started 10 games but will finish her collegiate career at UCLA this season after transferring in the spring. Backups are back, however, and newcomers will scramble for playing time.
Patberg, who once upon a time began her career at Notre Dame, may be the most insightful and talkative in the bunch. But more eyes will be on the quieter Berger, who spent part of the summer winning a gold medal with Team USA in the FIBA AmeriCup.
It is felt the international exposure and workouts with high-level teammates will improve Berger’s impact. Patberg has seen as much in pre-season and early-season practice.
“Her game has grown tremendously,” Patberg said.
Holmes thinks Berger has become a more vocal leader than a year ago. Conceding her natural tendency is shyness, Berger said she is working on being more of a bigmouth on the court directing traffic.
“I’m kind of forcing myself to talk as much as I can,” she said.
Although the NCAA tournament is nirvana and a title is the end of the rainbow, the Big Ten will be as rugged as any conference this winter. Other league teams ranked are Maryland (No. 4), Iowa (No. 9), Michigan (No. 11), and Ohio State (No. 17). Winning the league is a tall task and Maryland has been a nemesis. Knowing they will face such a gauntlet, some teams might schedule a pattycake start to the season. Not IU. The Hoosiers play Kentucky (No. 13), North Carolina State (No. 5) and defending national champ Stanford (No. 3) in the first month before all the ranked in-league teams.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s going to prepare us,” Patberg said.
Nobody will accuse the Hoosiers of being cowards. The attitude is more of the famous adage espoused by the first heavyweight champion of them all, John L. Sullivan, who announced he could “lick any (S-O-B) in the house.”
Taking on one and all is an outlook Moren wants to instill as part of being tough, of part of making sure IU has seen everything before the one-and-done NCAA tournament.
“It’s always intentional how we put together our schedule,” Moren said.
For her part, Holmes, while acknowledging the degree of difficulty of the schedule, cares less about the names of opponents, but more about knowing the games will be played. Unlike the tentative nature of last season’s worrisome week-to-week existence, she figures the schedule is rock solid and teams won’t be exiled to quarantine at the last minute.
Gulbe, who played with the Latvian national team in the off-season, got a feel for how widespread Indiana’s hoops reputation carries when a coach told her of playing in Assembly Hall — “which is crazy to me.”
Crazier — by design — was early October’s “Hoosier Hysteria” event when the doors were thrown open and fans poured through to whoop it up. There were fans, live-and-in person, Gulbe took note, as compared to the cardboard cutout spectators of a year ago.
Now the Hoosiers want to give their supporters something to cheer, a reprise of a memorable NCAA run, a best-ever season against the best-ever competition. Moren wants her troops hungry and they have bought into that party line of approaching the 2021-22 season famished.
“Once you get a little taste of that, it fuels you even more,” Patberg said of reaching the Elite Eight. “We want to go farther.”
While demanding constant hard work and focus, Moren is not discouraging the talk of a belief that the goal of surpassing the Elite Eight is possible.
“They’re playing for something bigger,” she said.
If Moren leads the Indiana women’s team to a national title her fame in her home town may even catch up to that of favorite son John Mellencamp, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.
In Indiana, basketball fans know the difference between good and great, between accomplishing something special and making a mark for the ages.
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