After sitting with two fouls for the majority of the second quarter, sophomore forward Mackenzie Holmes’ presence instantly resurfaced when she reentered the game in the second half.
On the first play of the half, the Big Ten blocks leader used her 6-foot-2 frame to send back a layup attempt from Belmont University’s Destinee Wells. Two minutes later, the Bruins’ leading scorer drove into the paint and again, Holmes rejected her shot.
The two rapid blocks were a microcosm of Hoosiers’ stingy defense the entire game, guiding IU to a 70-48 victory over Belmont on Wednesday in San Antonio. The Hoosiers set a Big Ten record by only allowing 80 points through the first two rounds of an NCAA Tournament.
IU has always cherished the team aspect of piling stops together, head coach Teri Moren said after the game. No matter who affects the possession the most, the whole group comes out satisfied.
“This is what makes this team so special,” Moren said. “They just don’t care [who makes the play].”
Belmont was unable to consistently find clean looks – a problem most teams run into when facing the Hoosiers. IU was ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring defense, giving up less than 60 points per game.
An essential part to their success has been the pressure senior guard Nicole Cardaño-Hillary puts on the opposing team’s ball handler.
Wednesday, she was tasked with guarding Belmont’s best player, Wells, the entire game. Although she finished with 16 points, Cardaño-Hillary’s irritating defense forced Wells to shoot 7-of-20 from the field.
“Nikki did what she’s been doing for the past few months and came in and made everything difficult for her,” Berger said.
Not only did she provide pressure, but she also contributed on the offensive end. After a poor shooting day in the first round Monday, she responded with 10 points on an efficient 4-of-7 shooting.
“[Nikki] is not afraid of the moment,” Moren said. “That’s the one thing that I appreciate about coaching her most.”
Junior forward Aleksa Gulbe made her impact known on defense as well. Along with affecting numerous shots underneath, she set an IU record in the NCAA Tournament by bringing down 15 rebounds. The previous mark was 12, set by Denise Jackson in 1983.
Her shot was not falling Wednesday, but Moren is not surprised that Gulbe was significant in other avenues.
“That’s a make of a mature, experienced player that gets it,” Moren said.
Holding a 12-point lead at halftime, the Hoosiers out hustled the Bruins in the final 20 minutes. They forced nine second-half turnovers that led to 11 easy points from runouts.
Like it has all season, IU used its top-notch endurance to play at the quick pace it prefers late in games.
“We’ve been able to outlast teams particularly in the second half because we haven’t fatigued and tired,” Moren said.
In IU’s historic season, the defense has been extremely steady from start to finish. There have been nights when its offense has stalled, but guarding the ball has kept them in every game. So it’s about time it gets the national attention it deserves.
The Hoosiers now advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history and will face No. 1 seed North Carolina State University at 6 p.m. Saturday. The Wolfpack won the Atlanta Coast Conference Tournament before defeating No. 16 seed North Carolina A&T State University and No. 8 seed University of South Florida in the first two rounds.
Although advancing to the next round is sweet, IU is hungry for more.
“We know we’re not done yet,” Berger said. “We’re ready to come out and play again this weekend.”