The No. 14 Indiana women’s basketball team is ramping up preparation for the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. For some members of the team, it will be the final time they prepare for a postseason in their collegiate careers.
Ali Patberg, Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, Aleksa Gulbe and Grace Waggoner all celebrated their careers together on Senior Day Feb. 19, and now, each only has a few more games in the cream and crimson before the curtain draws on their college careers.
Ali Patberg, a seventh-year guard from Columbus, Indiana, has become synonymous with Indiana basketball. Patberg joined the team as a transfer student but had to sit out her first year at Indiana, supporting the team in its 2018 WNIT Championship run from the sideline.
Before coming to Indiana, Patberg sat out her freshman year at the University of Notre Dame due to an injury. She was a role player off the bench in her sophomore season. Once she came to Bloomington however, she quickly developed into a leader and capable producer.
In her first season playing for Indiana, Patberg led the team in both points and assists per game to help take Indiana to the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Patberg has started all 116 games she has played for Indiana.
In the 2019-20 season, Patberg once again led Indiana in scoring and assists, and the team was ranked No. 20 before the season was stopped due to COVID-19. In last season’s Elite Eight run, Patberg was third on the team in scoring and second in assists. Despite not leading the team on the stats sheet, Patberg was always a vital component to Indiana’s success.
“She's a 1,000-point scorer, and she's had some really amazing games throughout her career here,” head coach Teri Moren said last week. “But I think what will always set her apart in my eyes is she's just been such an amazing leader inside the locker room and a complete joy to coach.”
Patberg’s statistical production has dipped this season, but she has still helped the team succeed as a strong leader, skilled distributor and the Hoosiers’ primary perimeter defender. Currently, Patberg ranks ninth all-time among Hoosier women’s basketball players in career points with 1,677 and third in assists with 502.
Despite only two years with Indiana, Nicole Cardaño-Hillary has made a name for herself as a relentless defender and fearless floor general. The Spanish guard joined Indiana in 2020-21 after spending the previous three seasons at George Mason University.
While Patberg often draws the assignment of the opponent’s best perimeter player, Cardaño-Hillary usually matches up with the opponent’s best point guard, proceeding to make their day a waking nightmare. She consistently picks her player up as soon as the ball is inbounded and takes advantage of any momentary chance to poke the ball away and generate a turnover.
Cardaño-Hillary’s incessant defense not only produces results in the form of steals, which she has led the team in since she arrived, but also by getting under opponents' skin and causing them to commit ill-advised fouls out of frustration.
Though she has not led the Hoosiers in any major statistical category outside of steals, Cardaño-Hillary has still been a very useful offensive asset for the team. She has started 42 of her 49 games for the Hoosiers and is fifth on the team in scoring this year heading into the postseason, with an average of 11.5 points.
As the only true senior who will be leaving the team after this season, Aleksa Gulbe has improved throughout her career and now stands as one of Indiana’s most important pieces heading into the postseason.
The forward from Latvia did not start any games in 2018-19, her freshman year, but she played in nearly every game, including both NCAA Tournament games. Gulbe started nearly every single game in her sophomore and junior years and finished fifth in scoring and second in rebounding in both years.
With then-sophomore forward Mackenzie Holmes’ emergence as a dominant post presence last season, Gulbe was forced to adapt to a take on a perimeter position. The role change allowed Gulbe to shoot more 3-pointers, but she still continued her rebounding production, grabbing 44 boards across Indiana’s four NCAA Tournament games alone.
"She is such a great defender in this league and has been so important to what we've been able to accomplish on that side," Moren said. "Then to be able to score the ball and get into the 1,000-point club is a really special thing for Lex."
This season, Gulbe has had an increasingly heavy workload due to injuries and a lack of depth at the forward spot. She is currently third in scoring and second in rebounding on the team, and when Holmes was sidelined for eight games with a knee injury, Gulbe’s ranks among her teammates jumped to second and first, respectively.
Since joining the team as a walk-on in 2019, Grace Waggoner has never been a key rotational piece, but she has always been a useful bench player who is capable of making big plays when needed. Prior to this season, Indiana removed Waggoner’s walk-on label and gave her a scholarship for the year.
Despite being a junior, this season will be Waggoner’s last with the team. However, the guard from Vincennes, Indiana said she will continue to pursue her master’s degree at IU.
Waggoner currently has career totals of 33 points and 51 rebounds in 305 minutes of play, mostly playing late in games with the decision already decided.
However, she made the most of her limited minutes. Waggoner was on the floor with under 20 seconds to go and down by 1 point to rival Purdue in West Lafayette on Jan. 16. As Purdue tried to inbound the pass, Waggoner stole the ball to give Indiana the opportunity to send the game to overtime, where Indiana won 73-69.
“(I’m) going to miss all of them,” Moren said after the senior night celebration following Indiana’s loss to Iowa on Feb. 19. “You miss all your seniors once they get to this point in their career.”