With a chunk of the net in hand, head coach Teri Moren stood atop the yellow ladder pumping her fists toward a bubbly Assembly Hall crowd.
She had engineered No. 2 Indiana women’s basketball’s meteoric rise to the peak of the mountain. Sunday afternoon — after dismantling in-state rival Purdue 83-60 — the Hoosiers ensured at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
Moren walked around the court hugging anyone and everyone in sight. The affection was particularly special for two pillars of the program that have been the stewards of Moren’s mission: senior forward Mackenzie Holmes and graduate guard Grace Berger.
Berger isn’t one for sappiness. From the outside, she exudes quiet calculation and unwavering determination. It’s rather unsurprising that, in the wake of her senior day celebration and an excellent performance to propel the Hoosiers to Big Ten glory, Berger wasn’t entirely satisfied.
It’s not just a façade, either. Her teammates and coaches know the charismatic and funny side of the star guard, but as tears rolled down her cheek, Moren couldn’t help but laud the work ethic and impact of Berger.
“Grace Berger, she continues to tell us how we haven’t done anything,” Moren said after the game. “One of the greatest gifts you can give someone is belief. (Berger) believed in this program. She believed in me and the vision. For that I’ll always be grateful.”
Aside from sheer talent, a relentless drive to achieve more is why the Hoosiers are where they are. From the dawn of Moren’s tenure nearly a decade ago, it was that characteristic that grew the program from a middling afterthought to an undisputed Final Four contender.
The climb has been gradual. Indiana women’s basketball certainly wasn’t built in a day. Team and recruitment coordinator Ali Patberg, who aided the team tremendously in her years as a player, shares a similar tenacity as Berger.
In the uniform, Patberg may not have been able to bask in the same honor as the Hoosiers did on Sunday. But her contributions cannot go unnoticed. Like Berger, Patberg was the lab-made embodiment of everything Moren looks for in a player and person.
As junior guard Chloe Moore-McNeil, with the Big Ten Champions trophy in her arm, ran to find Patberg amid the postgame euphoria, the countless hours of work put in behind the scenes over recent years started to be realized.
“She’s such a big part of this,” Moren said of Patberg. “You can tell by the reaction of our players when she went up there and cut down the net just how important and special she’s been for our program. She loves Indiana.”
The actual game itself was a microcosm of the Hoosiers’ performances all season. A slow first half resulted in just a 3-point halftime lead, but there’s something about those third quarters. Teams can dread it and try to avoid it, but Indiana will always go ballistic out of halftime.
Team-oriented defensive efforts, scorching hot shooting from Moore-McNeil and Garzon — and savviness from Berger and Holmes — spearheaded a 27-12 third frame that all but sealed the victory. Even in blowouts, Hoosier faithful will conjure a villain one way or another.
The sold-out Assembly Hall crowd, which formed lines onto 17th street and forced parking to spill into Bart Kaufman Field prior to the game, found its match in Purdue senior Jeanae Terry. The jeers were unrelenting.
Terry’s consistent jawing with the referees fed the swaths of crimson all they needed to bear down on the Boilermaker guard. Indiana junior guard Sydney Parrish, a Fishers, Indiana, native, knows the weight and ferocity of the rivalry.
Parrish is a Hoosier through and through. Despite playing at the University of Oregon for two seasons before transferring to Bloomington for her third year, it appears she made the right decision coming home.
“I went two years and was never able to climb up on a ladder and cut down a piece of the net, so it felt really special,” Parrish said. “I knew this was home.”
As one of Indiana’s newcomers, Parrish was absent for the foundational stages of the program. Upon her arrival, though, she said the manic desire of Berger, Holmes and Moren stuck out.
“They built this program. You can credit some of the newer girls, but they’re the ones who built it from the bottom,” Parrish said. “(Berger) is a really special player. I’ve been super grateful to be able to play with her.”
After the game, Berger said her Big Ten Champions hat fit a little too loose for her liking. Her sentimentality may have been overshadowed by her inclination for a tighter fit, but she definitely cherished the moment. Parrish was a little more concerned with the message than the sizing of the apparel.
“This says champions on it, so it fits good,” Parrish said.
Still, as emotional as the afternoon was for the team and the town alike, Indiana knows this isn’t the end of the road. Sunday was euphoric, but a new week means a new challenge. With the conference tournament and March Madness looming, there’s still a lot of grueling hours in the gym left to be had.
Berger and the Hoosiers wouldn’t want it any other way.