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After Its Breakthrough Season, Indiana Has Much More It Wants to Prove

The Hoosiers, ranked in the top 10 and coming off their first Elite Eight, are not settling as they chase even bigger goals.

Indiana women’s basketball made its deepest run ever in last season’s NCAA tournament, reaching the Elite Eight before falling to Arizona. But despite that program breakthrough, the team was far from satisfied.

“It hurt,” guard Ali Patberg says. “We lost, and none of us are good losers.”

Patberg, a sixth-year senior at the time, was faced with the decision of whether she would use her last year of eligibility or move on from college hoops over half a decade after she started.

But Patberg justified her decision quite easily.

“I love to win,” she says.

Knowing that her four fellow starters would be returning for the 2021–22 season—and that her team had proven to itself and the nation that it can hang with and beat the best (like No. 1 NC State, who IU upset in the Sweet 16)—Patberg followed suit with the hopes of accomplishing what she first set out to do seven years ago: win a championship.

The Hoosiers have managed to build off last season’s success in their 14–2 start to this year. Their only losses came to top-10 opponents NC State and defending national champ Stanford by just eight and three points, respectively. They’ve earned three wins against ranked opponents and have coasted to a 6–0 start in Big Ten play, including their first win in program history over Maryland—the conference champion six of the last seven years. The victory propelled Indiana to the top of the Big Ten and No. 6 in the nation.

Moren and Patberg hug after the win over Maryland

Moren and Patberg hug after the win over the Terrapins.

“If you’re in the Big Ten, your barometer is Maryland,” head coach Teri Moren says. “They've always been the team that everybody has chased … The Maryland win was significant for our program.”

But while the Hoosiers have been in control of their destiny throughout the season, they are now in uncharted territory, especially in the Moren era.

When Moren took over as head coach in 2014, Indiana was a Big Ten bottomfeeder, finishing eighth or worse in the conference for five consecutive years. Her first season wasn’t much different, as IU finished in 12th, but by her second year, in '15–16, the team skyrocketed to fourth in the Big Ten and has only finished below that twice since. In '16, Moren won Big Ten Coach of the Year after taking the program to its first NCAA tournament since '02. The Hoosiers have made more tournaments (three) under her than any other head coach.

“Our program is what it is because of her,” Patberg says. “Who she is as a person and who she is as a leader is everything that all of us embody on the floor. … She’s one of a kind, she’s special, and we’ve been lucky to have her as our leader.”

While Moren has helped turn the program into the powerhouse it's become, reaching multiple milestones along the way, she’s still chasing the main goal she set for her team eight years ago: win the Big Ten. The last time the Hoosiers claimed a share of the title was in 2002 when they won the Big Ten tournament despite finishing fifth in the regular-season rankings. Their last regular-season title was in 1983 when Moren was just 13 years old.

Nearly 40 years later, the team believes this could be its year, and Moren will do whatever it takes to get there.

“She’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met,” senior guard Grace Berger says. “Whether that be in a drill in practice, anything outside of practice or obviously a game, she wants to do anything she can do to win.”

Eight years in the making, this Hoosiers team assembled by Moren can help her achieve that goal.

The starting lineup of Mackenzie Holmes, Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, Aleksa Gulbe, Berger and Patberg is arguably the best in the Big Ten and one of the strongest in the country. All five are averaging double-digit points, and Holmes, Patberg and Berger all rank in the top 25 in scoring in the conference. Holmes, a junior, is the youngest in the lineup, so the veteran experience has allowed IU to stay composed against top opponents in and out of the conference. While its offensive production has been critical to its success, especially in transition, its defense is the key, leading the conference in holding opponents to just 57.8 points per game.

While the team has the right pieces and talent certainly isn’t lacking, its culture and mindset are what has propelled Indiana to such success.

“We have players that are unselfish, understand their role and have completely bought into coach Moren’s vision,” Berger says. “We’re not worried about any individual accolades. We’re just worried about winning a championship.”

“Championships are something that we have always talked about in our program,” Moren adds. “We've never shied away from talking about that because I'm a firm believer that you have to talk about it. You’ve got to put it out there for your players. They need to know what they're playing for.”

No championship team reaches the end without facing some sort of adversity, and IU has had its fair share, especially in recent weeks. Ahead of the matchup with Nebraska, Indiana’s leading scorer Holmes was ruled out with a knee injury, and it was later revealed that she needed surgery and may not return until the postseason. It was the first time the starting five of Cardaño-Hilary, Patberg, Berger, Gulbe and Holmes didn’t start together since last January. Then, IU was forced to play without Cardaño-Hillary for the Purdue game due to COVID-19 protocols.

Indiana's Aleksa Gulbe and guard Ali Patberg high five

Gulbe (left) and Patberg are two of the Hoosiers' five starters.

Moren famously likes to keep her rotation compact, playing no more than seven players on an average night, but the injuries and COVID-19 issues have forced her to look deeper down the bench to sophomores Kiandra Browne and Chloe Moore-McNeil, allowing the team to build up its depth ahead of the postseason.

“Do I like the idea right now of playing without MacKenzie? Absolutely not,” Moren says. “I don't like it, but I do think it will benefit us down the road with the experience."

The Hoosiers have been off the court for over two weeks now, as their last three games were postponed due to COVID-19 issues within their program and their opponents’, but they’re poised for the demanding schedule that lies ahead. Facing No. 7 Michigan on Monday before taking on No. 23 Iowa and No. 17 Maryland to end the season, IU hopes it can keep the momentum going.

“We feel like we were playing pretty good basketball, and anytime there's a stoppage, pause or disruption, I think our biggest fear as a staff is that we'll probably look a little bit out of sync,” Moren says. “We’ve had some practices where we really tried to get up and down the floor against each other and against our scout team. It’s still different. I have to rely on the fact these girls are vets, and they’re experienced, and that will pay dividends for us.”

Indiana understands the stakes at hand, especially given the program’s history and how far it’s come in the last 20 years.

“We still play with a chip on our shoulder,” Moren says. “As far as being relevant many years ago, you didn't talk about Indiana women's basketball, so I think we walk in every day still with this chip that we have more to prove.”

For Moren and Patberg, who grew up just 52 and 37 miles from Bloomington, respectively, reaching that milestone in their home state—especially one that values basketball as much as Indiana does—would mean even more.

“In 2018, when we won the NIT, to have 13,000 folks inside Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall was something that, growing up in Southern Indiana and coming over and watching Indiana women's basketball, I never thought could happen,” Moren says. “I think that we have sparked some interest in women's basketball, particularly here in Bloomington.”

While the Hoosiers’ potential is clear, Patberg says they’re not getting ahead of themselves. For now, they’re taking it one game at a time.

“I came back for one reason, so it would be pretty sweet [to win a title]— that’s for sure,” she says. “But we have a lot of work left, and we’re ready for it.”

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