Indiana women’s basketball is returning to the Sweet Sixteen for the second year in a row and the second time in program history.
No. 3-seed Indiana will travel to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to face off against No. 2-seed University of Connecticut at 2 p.m. Saturday. The faceoff will be the first meeting of the two teams in program history.
Neither team has had an easy run of the NCAA Tournament, with close games against their Second Round foes that caused some fans to sweat and wonder if their team would make it. But both Indiana and UConn fought to pull out wins, and the matchup was set.
Here are the top things to look for in Saturday’s game:
Recovery from injuries
UConn lost its star player in sophomore guard Paige Bueckers to a left knee injury in December. Bueckers underwent surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear and an anterior tibial plateau fracture later in the month, and she returned to play mid-February.
She hasn’t been the same since returning, playing limited minutes, but the Huskies keep winning regardless. And Bueckers is still contributing in big ways. In their close 52-47 win over No. 7-seed University of Central Florida, Bueckers posted 9 points on 4-of-9 shooting and had two assists, one block and one steal. She also played 32 minutes, the longest since she returned from injury.
UConn’s head coach Geno Auriemma said his expectations for Bueckers are low, given her injuries. However, Bueckers is still UConn’s second highest scorer with 13.7 points per game and is a threat anywhere on the court.
Indiana is no stranger to knee injuries, as junior forward Mackenzie Holmes missed just over a month of play due to a left knee injury sustained in January. Holmes returned to play Feb. 17 and has been steadily increasing her playing time, working back up to being the dominant post player she was before her injury.
Holmes has scored in double figures in Indiana’s last eight games, and she has been getting more comfortable grabbing tough rebounds and getting up to block opponents’ shots. She put up four blocks in Indiana’s win over No. 11-seed Princeton on Monday night, alongside eight rebounds and 10 points.
Neither player is at her peak performance level, but both have the potential to make or break the game and their proficiency on offense or defense — or both — could be a deciding factor in Saturday’s game.
Luckily for both teams, they don’t have to rely solely on Holmes or Bueckers. Indiana has graduate student guard Ali Patberg and senior guard Grace Berger. UConn has freshman guard Azzi Fudd and senior forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
Neither Fudd nor Nelson-Ododa lead the Huskies in points per game — that title belongs to senior guard Christyn Williams with 14.5 — but they are just as influential in the final score.
Fudd leads UConn in made 3-pointers, shooting at a .448 clip for a total of 52 on the season. She averages 12.4 points per game and plays about 27 minutes per game and has been praised by her teammates for playing with calmness and confidence despite just being a freshman.
Throughout Indiana’s season, Patberg has been tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player — in this case, Fudd. However, Indiana has recently been changing up its ball-screen plays, and Patberg could easily move to guard someone else.
But no matter where she is on the court, Patberg will deliver. Her experience makes her Indiana’s leader on and off the court, and she knows when to take her own shots and when to pass the ball out. Patberg averages 11.5 points and 3.5 assists per game. Her assist ratio is good for second-most on the team.
UConn’s Nelson-Ododa is a key contributor on both ends of the court but is specifically noteworthy under the basket. She leads her team with 213 rebounds and is averaging 7.3 rebounds per game. Nelson-Ododa also leads the Huskies in blocks with 53 for an average of 1.7 per game.
One Hoosier that Nelson-Ododa is not likely to frequently match up with is Berger, who is known for her midrange jumper. Berger leads Indiana with 16.3 points per game, with almost all of those coming from free throws or mid-range shots.
The Huskies are known for posting blowout wins, averaging 74 points per game while holding opponents to 53 points. However, they are also just as capable of playing games decided by one or two possessions.
UConn fought a defensive battle with UCF, and it has had other games in the season where it failed to score 60 points, including a 57-73 loss to top-ranked University of South Carolina in November.
UConn’s point total is often influenced by whatever team it plays, and since Indiana prides itself on its defense, Saturday could be a low-scoring game for both teams.
Indiana has struggled with consistent defense, which at times seems to disappear from underneath the basket and not compete for rebounds. In Indiana’s 56-55 win over Princeton, the team gave up four offensive rebounds in one possession.
However, the Hoosiers have seen increased consistency in bench production as the season has progressed, and they can now call on players like sophomore guard Chloe Moore-McNeil to score off the bench. The Hoosiers have “shared the sugar” throughout postseason play, and Saturday shouldn’t be any different.