Via Stefan Krajisnik of the Indianapolis Star
In a season unpredictable in so many ways and a year difficult in its own ways, Indiana women’s basketball is rewriting its history books in unforgettable fashion.
The latest accolade in Teri Moren’s rebuild — which is turning the corner to be labeled a success — came Wednesday evening, with Indiana rolling past another opponent and advancing past the second round of the NCAA women’s tournament for the first time in program history.
So when Moren is sitting at her postgame news conference soaked from a locker room celebration following a 70-48 win against 12-seed Belmont, it comes as a moment for Moren to reflect before looking ahead to what is next.
“As you can tell, we made some history,” Moren said in her opening statement. “Our kids and our staff, particularly those kids, were very excited and got me pretty good in the locker room afterwards. But that’s OK. Wet pants, wet shirt, wet hair in order to just watch the pure joy that these kids have right now is well worth it.”
Coaching a program with a defense-first mentality, not only did the accolades have Moren beaming postgame but also the fact that her team has held opponents to just 80 points in the first two games of this NCAA tournament — the best ever by a Big Ten team.
Two days after holding VCU to 32 points in the first round, Indiana came out and held Belmont to .738 points per possession.
Belmont’s leading scorer, Destinee Wells, connected on her first two jumpers and appeared to be headed toward another big performance following a 25-point showing in her team’s first-round upset of fifth-seeded Gonzaga.
But after allowing 12 points in the opening eight minutes of the game, Indiana’s defense clamped down. The Hoosiers (20-5) held the Bruins (20-6) to just six points in the final 12 minutes of the first half, and it came with potent shot-blocker Mackenzie Holmes on the bench for a significant portion with foul trouble.
Kiandra Browne, who has been dealing with a hip injury on and off this season, came into the game to replace Holmes for much of the second quarter and brought defensive intensity as she has throughout her freshman season.
“You know what to expect from her,” IU guard Grace Berger said postgame. “She’s just a great teammate and she does whatever she has to do — whether that’s scoring the ball or whether that’s just bringing energy or getting a stop defensively.”
Players such as Browne set the tone defensively, which comes as no surprise for a program and a coach that emphasize that end of the floor. What was different for IU in this second tournament game was its ability to get the offense going early and not settling for outside shots.
As it did in the second half against VCU, Indiana made it an emphasis to get the ball inside whether it be through Holmes or from the guards penetrating the defense. Holmes had eight of Indiana’s first 13 points and finished with 13.
IU attempted just six shots from deep against Belmont, had just eight turnovers and picked up 11 assists on 25 made field goals.
“Whenever we can get the ball in Mackenzie’s hands early, I think that’s a good thing for our team,” Berger said.
Berger led the way for Indiana with 17 points — which gives her 37 in the tournament — to go along with six rebounds and three steals. Her fellow guards Nicole Cardano-Hillary and Ali Patberg combined for 23 points of their own on 9-of-17 shooting.
Cardano-Hillary was given the assignment of defending Wells and continued to show that her transfer to Indiana from George Mason has developed into more than just a boost on the offensive end.
She limited Wells to 16 points on 20 shot attempts in 38 minutes of play.
“When you give (Cardano-Hillary) a challenge, and we’ve given her many especially with primary ball-handlers, she embraces that,” Moren said. “She loves that.”
If anyone encapsulated IU’s mantra in this tournament and within the program during Moren’s tenure, it was Aleksa Gulbe. While struggling to get going offensively to start, Gulbe picked up a career-high 15 rebounds and was part of Indiana’s effort in allowing just seven points to Belmont’s starting forwards.
“That’s the mark of a mature, experienced player that gets it,” Moren said. “If my shot’s not gonna fall, then I’m gonna find something else. I’m gonna find another way to impact the game.”
Moren said the team will follow its usual 24-hour rule of enjoying a win before the attention turns to what’s next — a matchup at 6 p.m. Saturday against No. 1 seed N.C. State.