At 13-1, the women’s basketball team's season is off to a hot start in 2018.
The emergence of junior guard Ali Patberg, the toughness of junior forward Brenna Wise and senior forward Kym Royster, and the defense and athleticism sophomore guards Jaelynn Penn and Bendu Yeaney bring to the court have dominated early headlines.
Those five players round out the Hoosiers’ starting five. They have been efficient. Patberg, Wise, Penn and Yeaney are all averaging double-figure scoring.
But what makes this team different from last year’s isn’t the starting core. It’s the bench players. More specifically, the freshman duo of Grace Berger and Aleksa Gulbe.
Last season, Penn and Yeaney were Coach Teri Moren's stud freshman, averaging eight-plus points per game and playing 35-plus minutes. Berger and Gulbe have now taken those roles.
Berger, like Penn, was a five-star recruit out of Louisville, Kentucky. She was thrust into action off the bat, starting the first game of the season against University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as Yeaney was held out for precautionary purposes. Berger finished with four points and two assists in the team’s 68-66 victory.
In her 14 games played, Berger is averaging 5.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game.
The six-foot guard is soft spoken. After posting 11 points on Nov. 21 against the University of Florida, she talked about everything but scoring.
“I think I just needed to see one go through the net, but really I was just focused on doing other things like defense, rebounding and running plays correctly,” Berger said. “I knew that offense would eventually come for me.”
That’s a testament to Berger’s production this season. The numbers aren’t flashy, but what she brings is an offensive ability to score on her own and a sound defensive style that gives Moren confidence to play the freshman 20 minutes a game.
From a perimeter player to the post presence, Gulbe is exactly that below the free-throw line — a presence.
The 6-foot-3-inch Latvian forward has 13 blocks in 12 games played and has rejected two or more shots in four different games. With her size, Gulbe is the second tallest player on the team behind sophomore forward Linsey Marchese at 6 feet 4 inches.
Last year, Marchese was the only forward to come off the bench for IU, averaging 12 minutes, 1.9 rebounds and 1.6 points per game. In her 36 games played, she accumulated just 13 blocks.
Marchese still plays solid minutes this season, but with a more athletic Gulbe in the rotation, the team has become more dynamic.
Gulbe is averaging 18 minutes, 3.8 rebounds and 7.3 points per game while shooting 49 percent from the field. She’s a shot blocker who can also hit jumpers and stretch her shooting to the three-point line.
That said, where the coaching staff thinks Gulbe can be dangerous is in the post. She’s scored in double digits three times already and has been a menace on the offensive glass.
In IU's Big Ten opener against Illinois on Dec. 28, IU trailed by double digits in the second half. Gulbe grabbed four offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter in what Moren called the momentum changer. The Hoosiers won by two in overtime.
A season ago, no bench player averaged more than 12 minutes and scored more than two points per game. Now, IU has two players that play nearly 20 minutes per game and can score anywhere from five to 15 points on any given day.
And while Berger and Gulbe’s production will continue to be a positive for this season, the future of IU women’s basketball is bright.
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