Defense was one of the most prominent features of the 2020-21 Indiana women’s basketball team, propelling it into its first NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearance in history. At Big Ten Media Days on Friday, head coach Teri Moren emphasized the importance of defense, specifically among her veteran players.
“That’s really what Coach Moren has built this program around,” graduate student forward Ali Patberg said. “That’s what we’re going to continue to do because we’ve had such success with it and that’s going to win us games in the future.”
With all five starters from the Elite Eight returning, including Patberg and graduate student guard Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, the majority of the Hoosiers understand what is at stake and how to achieve the same — if not greater — level of success compared to the previous season. Moren called Patberg a great leader for the team and someone younger players can look up to.
“Our vets get it,” Moren said. “They understand that getting in the gym, in addition to what’s required, will always set us apart.”
Patberg, returning for her fifth year at Indiana after two at the University of Notre Dame, finished last season with 379 points and 104 rebounds. She is poised to be one of Indiana’s main leaders, knowing what it takes to be a successful team.
“We always, first and foremost, pride ourselves on defense,” Patberg said. “Whether you’re having the best game of your life or the worst, you can always work hard and play good defense.”
Moren also pointed to Cardaño-Hillary and junior forward Mackenzie Holmes as being key components of Indiana’s defense last season. Holmes led the team with 206 rebounds and 81 blocks, and Cardaño-Hillary tied senior guards Grace Berger and senior forward Alexa Gulbe for the team lead with 31 steals.
“Just the way she heats up the ball, the pressure she applies defensively, she really gets us going,” Moren said about Cardaño-Hillary’s style of play. “We knew we were going to get a bucket-getter with her, but what she turned into was just a phenomenal on-the-ball defender.”
Berger, who finished second on the team with 183 rebounds, played similarly to Cardaño-Hillary in terms of strategy, slipping smoothly between opposing players to steal balls and surprise the other team.
Berger was a member of the gold medal-winning USA Basketball AmeriCup team over the summer, something both she and Moren feel helped her confidence and ability.
“When she returned you could tell she’s at a whole ‘nother level right now, not only with the way she’s playing, but her confidence,” Moren said. “No one has worked harder than she has on her game.”
Berger perfectly encapsulates the core of her team — she works hard, has immense talent and has been very successful so far in her collegiate career. And yet, she wants more. She wants to keep improving and get all the way to the national championship come March Madness.
She said she’s playing with a chip on her shoulder, and so are the rest of the Hoosiers. Moren said they know they still have work to do and are focused on showing up every day to improve bit by bit to eventually reach their end goal.
“I think, personally, we feel like we still haven’t accomplished anything,” Berger said. “We still feel like we’re that blue-collar team that hasn’t done anything, so we’re just showing up every single day trying to get one percent better.”