Don’t lie. When No. 4 Indiana women’s basketball trotted into the locker room at the half, you had concerns. Sure, the Hoosiers were down just 29-26, but boy were those some ugly first couple quarters.
I really hate to do this, even more so after the Hoosiers ultimately took down Penn State to remain perfect on the year, but we need to contextualize things. In the first quarter, Indiana committed nine turnovers. The Hoosiers’ total game average prior to Thursday night’s game? Eleven.
In the Hoosiers’ first nine games of the season, they ranked seventh in the nation with an average of 43 first-half points. Their 26 against the Nittany Lions on Thursday pales just a bit in comparison.
Senior forward Mackenzie Holmes was constantly swarmed by double teams and even endured one quadruple team. Indiana’s outside shooting was nonexistent, and Penn State’s suffocating full-court press kept the Hoosiers at bay for 20 brutal, and at times, unwatchable minutes.
In a word, Indiana was nervy on both ends of the floor. Jittery on offense, a tad lackluster on the defensive side and simply uncomfortable.
“At halftime we all kind of came together and basically just said that wasn’t us in the first half,” junior guard Chloe Moore-McNeil said after the game. “We were turning the ball over a lot and trying to make plays we usually don’t need to make.”
Now that we got that out of the way, how about we break down part two of the starkly different two-act showing? I’m not a huge proponent of magic, but coach Teri Moren must have cast some sort of spell on her team to flip the switch in the second half.
Maybe Moore-McNeil was right, and they collectively agreed to wake up. Whatever it was, the Hoosiers came out in the third quarter looking just like the team that thumped No. 8 University of North Carolina.
Shots fell one after another, the ball movement was crisp and the defensive identity was resurrected. Penn State’s impenetrable wall had burst open, and Indiana simply looked fluid for the first time in the game. I can’t back this up with stats — of course — but everything that was maddeningly difficult for the Hoosiers in the first half became almost effortless.
As I questioned after the tight win over Illinois, I’m still skeptical of how this team will fare in the long term without graduate guard Grace Berger. Moore-McNeil has done everything in her power to quell that concern and only strengthened her case by shutting down Penn State star senior guard Makenna Marisa.
Marisa, who is averaging 18 points this season, recorded just 12 points on Thursday night with some less than stellar shooting splits. Moore-McNeil played all but one minute and looked comfortable as the Hoosiers’ lead ball handler.
Still, when players like senior guard Sara Scalia and freshman guard Yarden Garzon struggle to connect from range and contribute offensively, the Hoosiers can evidently suffer through some ugly stretches.
“Tonight, this is a night where we really needed Grace,” Moren said. “I thought there were times we were sped up and we needed her composure, especially in the first half. We missed her tonight.”
As we’ve known, replacing Berger will take a collective effort, not an individual star performance each night. Scalia, who was scorching-hot in the first handful of games this season, has cooled off significantly in Berger’s absence. A noted 3-point specialist, Scalia primarily finds points from running around the perimeter behind screens to find an open look.
A few times a game, though, Scalia will surprise. Instead of hurling a long shot or kicking the ball back out, she’ll drive, thus catching her defender heavily off guard. Her quickness is impressive, and she has displayed the ability to convert contested layups.
On a particularly impressive bucket in the second quarter, I actually jotted down, “Keep driving, Sara.” I’m glad Moren felt the same way.
“She has to become more aggressive for us as a secondary ball handler and take some of that pressure off Chloe,” Moren said about Scalia. “There are times where I feel like Sara’s sort of running away from the action. What we need her to do is be another solid, disciplined ball handler.”
Regardless, with a perfect 10-0 record now, I’m sure the Hoosiers are more than content with their current state. It may not have been pretty on Thursday, but there’s no such thing as style points.