Cheers echoed throughout Total Mortgage Arena for the entirety of Saturday afternoon’s NCAA Sweet Sixteen game in Bridgeport, Connecticut. You would never know one team’s tournament run had just ended.
The roar of the crowd — 90% of whom were University of Connecticut fans — served equally as the music to continue UConn’s dance and the music closing the curtains on Indiana’s performance.
The Hoosiers fell to the Huskies 75-58 in the Sweet Sixteen game, putting an end to the hopes of a second consecutive Elite Eight appearance, as well as the Hoosier careers of graduate student guards Ali Patberg and Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, senior forward Aleksa Gulbe and junior guard Grace Waggoner.
“We felt like we got off to a fast start and a really good start,” head coach Teri Moren said. “We did some uncharacteristic things of our team, (and) we knew it.”
Indiana stayed competitive with UConn through the first half of play, holding the lead for eight minutes of the first quarter and keeping within two possessions of UConn for most of the second quarter. The Hoosiers ended the second quarter with a buzzer-beater 3-pointer from Gulbe, which looked like the spark the team needed to carry into the second half of the game.
But Gulbe’s shot wasn’t the spark. There would be no spark.
In the first 30 seconds of the third quarter, three Hoosiers were called for personal fouls. The Huskies pounced, scoring 16 unanswered points with easy buckets against a lost group of Hoosiers.
“It was just really a bug-a-boo for us,” Moren said. “You can’t allow that to happen against a team like UConn. It’s very, very difficult to overcome a start like that.”
Cardaño-Hillary made Indiana’s first second-half shot four minutes into the third quarter, but it wasn’t enough to start any sort of run. Nothing was. UConn continued to drive the ball up and down the court, keeping away from Indiana’s guards and holding them to difficult shots.
“I didn’t like the third quarter,” Moren said. “(If) I could have that one back, that’s what I’d want back.”
The statistics for Saturday afternoon’s game are misleading. By the numbers, Indiana shot better than UConn — 48% from field goal range and 33% from beyond the arc — and had fewer fouls, with 17.
But look further into the numbers, and the final score makes more sense. UConn took 11 more 3-point shots than Indiana and 19 more shots from field goal range. Indiana’s foul calls were concentrated among four players, forcing them to play with more caution, whereas UConn’s 18 fouls were more evenly distributed.
One of the biggest difficulties the Hoosiers faced was the area they knew they had to excel in: rebounding. Indiana was outrebounded 39 to 27, and 15 of UConn’s rebounds were off the offensive glass. UConn finished the game with 14 second-chance points to Indiana’s 2.
“They’re lengthy, they’re athletic, so boxing out wasn’t enough,” Holmes said. “We had to go get it, and I personally — I’ll take the blame for that — failed to do that multiple times throughout the game.”
Holmes scored 12 points Saturday afternoon and grabbed six rebounds along the way. Only Patberg and senior guard Grace Berger scored more than Holmes, putting up 16 and 13 points, respectively. Patberg, in her final game as a Hoosier, shot 2-3 from beyond the arc and led all scorers with her point total.
“I’m disappointed that we lost — I’m not a good loser,” Patberg said through her tears at the postgame press conference. “But I’m just thankful that Coach Moren believed in me five years ago and gave me an opportunity to wear Hoosier on my chest.”
Patberg is one of four Hoosiers who won’t return to the team next season. The team Moren had for the past two years is finally splitting up after two consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances and countless historical moments for the program.
“Our work will continue, to keep building this thing,” Moren said. “There are still many other goals we want to be able to check off in our time at Indiana.”
Moren said she will look to Berger and Holmes to become the example and leader that Patberg was. The two will be the oldest returning players next season.
“I know I have a great core group that’s going to be returning to us,” Moren said. “It’s just trying to fit all those pieces together, because it will be different.”