For the nearly five-month long Indiana women’s basketball 2022-23 season, a certain mantra was maintained: there’s more work left.
Despite surging to as high as No. 2 in the AP poll, setting new attendance records on a seemingly weekly basis and inserting the program into unprecedented prominence, the Hoosiers were never complacent.
Until Feb. 26 — the regular season finale — Indiana had one loss. One. Saying the team was clicking would be a blasphemous understatement. At the outset of the season, most expected a highly competitive Big Ten team who would go as far as senior forward Mackenzie Holmes and graduate guard Grace Berger could take them.
Bulldozing might be a tad more fitting than competitive looking back. But as we now know, the regular season proved to be the peak of the year. It didn’t culminate in Dallas, where head coach Teri Moren could have coached the Hoosiers to their first Final Four.
It didn’t end with Holmes capping an All-American season, and one of the best in program history, with a national championship trophy. And it didn’t end with a proper goodbye for Berger — an all-time Hoosier who, with one midrange jumper at a time, took the team from an afterthought to a sensation.
As Moren lamented after Monday night’s loss to Miami in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, we’re predisposed to only remembering finalities. There’s something brutally innate in us that craves more and more satisfaction.
It was a bitter ending to an otherwise immensely fruitful season. Regardless of the myriad memories and team and individual accolades, the image of Holmes collapsed on Assembly Hall’s Branch McCracken Court and the tear-filled eyes of Berger will be difficult to subdue.
Moren’s sleeping giant of a program has been beaming with life over the past few seasons. The Hoosiers didn’t get to where they did by accident. As much as we can harp on missed opportunities and hypotheticals, I think we should reminisce a bit.
Navigating a new roster
Aside from Moren, the engineer of Indiana women’s basketball, there are far too many names to credit for molding the roster. Associate head coaches Rhet Wierzba and Glenn Box are merely a couple contributors, but it took a village to recoup the vacancies in talent left by the 2021-22 squad.
Three starters — Aleksa Gulbe, Ali Patberg and Nicole Cardaño-Hilary — concluded their playing days in the cream and crimson. The tandem of Berger and Holmes is a pretty good foundation, but there were questions as to how well Moren could fill the monumental voids left by that outgoing trio.
An amalgam of talented transfers and freshmen were brought in, and of course chemistry would be a primary concern. But if there’s one thing I can confidently say in hindsight, it’s that this team cared for one another like I’ve never seen.
Junior guard Sydney Parrish, a Fishers, Indiana native who transferred from Oregon, immersed herself with ease in terms of her personality and playstyle. Rarely without a hearty grin off the floor, it was especially interesting to see her fire, moxie and scrappiness on the court.
Most importantly, the newcomers guided a shift toward something that has long been devoid for the Hoosiers: 3-point shooting. Three players — Parrish, senior guard Sara Scalia and freshman guard Yarden Garzon — each attempted at least 150 triples.
Moren oozes old-school basketball values, but she championed the adaptation to the modern game. Junior guard Chloe Moore-McNeil, a breakout player and irreplaceable presence on both ends of the floor, proved to be a bit of a long-range assassin herself.
Berger, a throwback guard if there ever was one, tallied a career-best 3-point percentage of 41%. And hey, remember when Holmes even sunk a few from beyond the arc?
Combined with ball-movement wizardry and some pure dominance from Holmes down low, Indiana’s new-look offense staggered opposing defenses on an almost gamely basis — the final tally of 80.9 points per game set a new program record.
A changed culture
It’s hard to gloss over attendance and atmospheres when chronicling this past season. Of course, when I sit down in Assembly Hall as a reporter, I maintain as stern a demeanor as possible.
Admittedly, though, there were games where the deafening cheers and sheer volume of insatiable fans made me crack a smile. This isn’t particularly controversial, but basketball is way more fun in insane environments.
Nearly every home game, Moren and the players expressed profound appreciation for the Hoosier faithful. Like never before, they showed up in droves to witness a historic Indiana women’s basketball team perform.
The Ohio State and Iowa games of Jan. 26 and Feb. 9, respectively, stand out, but that home finale against Purdue might take the cake. For the first time, the Hoosiers played in front of a sold-out crowd, and they repaid the favor by clinching the Big Ten regular season title and cutting down the nets.
There was a palpable buzz in Bloomington. As demoralizing as the conclusion was, there was something weirdly reassuring about the aftermath. The unrelenting passion from fans afterward — and of course the hurt from the team — displayed just how much this season meant.
I’d like to think I was somewhat accurate with my predictions throughout the season, so I’ll make another: Indiana women’s basketball will be back in full force.
The Hoosiers return their centerpiece in Holmes, their snipers in Garzon, Parrish and Scalia, their stopper and distributor in Moore-McNeil and figure to get some breakout campaigns from freshmen Lilly Meister and Lexus Bargesser.
Berger is a painful departure, of course. But for decades to come, her legacy will not be overlooked. For Indiana women’s basketball, this season wasn’t a step back or indicative of decline. It was a historically successful year that will spark yearly national contention.