Head coach Teri Moren struck an optimistic tone in her opening statement to the press, despite Indiana women’s basketball’s 74-67 loss to No. 2-seed Iowa in the Big Ten Championship on Sunday.
“You want to peak in March,” she said.
The final score is not a representation of the way the game was played, as Iowa never had a lead larger than 7 points and Indiana held the lead for almost 10 minutes. The third matchup of the season between the Hoosiers and Hawkeyes featured on-brand physicality and aggressiveness, but was uncharacteristically low-scoring compared to the two regular-season contests.
The Hawkeyes entered Sunday’s game averaging 85 points per game with 7.5 made 3-pointers, but went below those totals with 74 points and a 2-14 mark from beyond the arc against the Hoosiers. Sophomore guard Caitlin Clark, who averages 28 points and three 3-pointers per game, scored 18 points and went 1-7 from 3-point range for the Hawkeyes.
“(Nicole) did a tremendous job on Clark today,” Moren said of graduate student guard Nicole Cardaño-Hillary’s defense. “She held her at bay (and) made her uncomfortable.”
While the mood surrounding the Hoosiers after the game was clearly somber, there was an even clearer mindset present – they have much to be proud of, and the season is not over yet.
In making it all the way to the conference title game, Indiana effectively solidified a spot to play its first-round matchup of the NCAA Tournament in Bloomington. While being in the tournament was already guaranteed, sitting as one of the No. 4-seeds or higher puts Indiana in an even more favorable position to make another Elite Eight run or better.
Playing in front of one’s home crowd can never be overlooked, and it showed in Indiana’s Big Ten Tournament run. In Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the site for the tournament, the team was surrounded by fans who made the hour-long trip from Bloomington to Indianapolis for the four days of play.
“It’s really special for us to see how excited people are about Indiana women’s basketball,” senior guard Grace Berger said. “It really means a lot for us, and we hope that they’re here for us when we host (games in) the NCAA tournament.”
In the final two weeks of regular-season play, there was no definitive answer as to whether the Hoosiers would play any postseason games in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. They lost four of their five final regular season games and seemed to be in a skid entering the Big Ten Tournament.
“The stretch was hard,” Moren said. “You’re playing five games in 10 days. You’re traveling, you do four one-day preps. That’s hard.”
Then, Indiana stepped up to the occasion demanded of national championship contenders in the month of March and played four games in four days, winning three.
The Indiana team that took to the floor in all four games of the Big Ten Tournament was reminiscent of the team fans saw in the first half of the season — one that didn’t lose a game in the entire month of December.
“I’m not surprised that we came to Indy with a new, fresh perspective (and) a new feel,” Moren said. “This is a new season for us.”
The Hoosiers competed with the Hawkeyes for the entirety of Sunday’s title game, but were bogged down by missed shots and foul calls in the closing stages. The Hoosiers finished shooting 38% from the field, and Berger fouled out of the game with 50 seconds remaining.
Despite Indiana’s inability to close out in the final minutes and bring home its first Big Ten Tournament title since 2002, Berger said fatigue didn’t play a factor in the result.
“We’re in better shape than any team in the country,” Berger said.
Indiana has maintained a “24-hour-feel-bad” policy throughout the season after losses before regrouping and preparing for future games. The team will have a week between the title game and Selection Sunday, on March 13, when seeding for the NCAA Tournament will be announced.
The Hoosiers likely won’t play in the tournament’s first round until Friday, March 18, giving the team plenty of time to rest and regroup. Moren said the players will take one or two days off before getting back to work, with a focus on getting junior forward Mackenzie Holmes back to top shape in her continued recovery from a knee injury.
But the biggest thing Moren will emphasize to her players is to keep their heads and hopes high.
“Obviously they’re going to be disappointed, but we’re never going to be discouraged,” Moren said. “I know this: they’re one of the best teams in the country.”