Two-point lead. 27 seconds left. One play to make.
Who better than Ali Patberg to make it?
The graduate student guard stood in defensive formation alongside the rest of the Hoosiers underneath the Tigers’ basket, in front of a deafening student section. Indiana students roared, waving cream and crimson balloons and cheering with all their might, willing some sort of play to arise to give Indiana possession back.
Indiana’s 54-52 lead at this point was tenuous. Princeton University stormed back from a 14-point deficit in the third quarter and threatened on every possession, despite the efforts of the Hoosier defense. But even with a minimal lead, the Hoosiers knew what they had to do to secure a win, and they knew they could do it.
“The main thing in our minds was just to not give up a three,” senior guard Grace Berger said. “It was just team defense, and we were confident in our defense.”
Patberg’s steal put the ball in Indiana’s hands, setting up one final play to give the team a chance to extend its lead and solidify a win to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Senior forward Aleksa Gulbe drew a foul with one second left, then knocked down both free throws.
A last-minute 3-pointer from Princeton senior guard Abby Meyers that went in as the final buzzer sounded meant little, and Indiana won 56-55 to advance to Saturday’s Sweet Sixteen in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Patberg getting her hands on the ball may not have been quite what Indiana planned for — haphazard steals and a scramble on the floor aren’t usually the goal — but it was the perfect end to the game that was Patberg’s grand finale in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
The Columbus, Indiana native returned to Bloomington for her seventh season of college basketball, and fifth at Indiana for the 2021-22 season. Patberg transferred to Indiana prior to the 2017-18 season but sat out due to NCAA transfer rules.
In the seasons following, Patberg played almost every game for the Hoosiers and consistently posted double-digit scoring averages, emerging as a reliable scorer and defender. This season, Patberg was consistently assigned to defend opposing teams’ best perimeter shooters.
But Patberg’s biggest contributions to the team have seemed to come off the court — or at least not in the form of points or defensive effort. Every time Moren and all of Patberg’s teammates are asked about Patberg’s impact, they primarily point to her leadership and personality.
“What she’s done for this program on the court, that kind of speaks for itself,” Berger said. “She’s taken every single one of us under her wing and allowed us to have individual success. She’s put the team over herself 100% of the time.”
Patberg currently has 111 assists in the 2021-22 season, staying true to Moren’s “sharing the sugar” catchphrase. Time and time again, Patberg passes the ball out to her teammates in the right moments to allow them to take the best shots possible.
“She’s our leader off the court (and) on the court,” Moren said. “She makes everyone around her better.”
With Patberg’s help, three Hoosiers scored in double figures against Princeton. Berger led all scorers with 15 points, followed by graduate student guard Nicole Cardaño-Hillary’s 12 and junior forward Mackenzie Holmes’ 10.
Patberg finished the game with 6 points, three assists and one steal.
Amidst the postgame celebrations, Patberg left her huddle of teammates and ran to Moren with a grin, giving her a bear hug and almost lifting her off the ground. Moren coached at Indiana for three years before Patberg’s arrival, but she has seen the most success during her time with the program since Patberg transferred.
Monday night marked Patberg’s final appearance as a player at Assembly Hall. She leaves the court victorious but not satisfied. Not by a long shot.
Indiana will face off against No. 2-seed University of Connecticut in the Sweet Sixteen, and neither team will go down without a fight.