Via Stefan Krajisnik of the Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS — Just as soon as Indiana could get to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to see the “MARCH IS ON” banners filling the arena for the Big Ten Tournament, its run in the women’s conference tournament was over.
Thursday night’s 69-61 loss to seventh-seeded Michigan State ended the Hoosiers’ stay in the quarterfinals — which was Indiana’s first game after earning a double-bye as the No. 2 seed and No. 9 team in the nation.
Riding a nine-game winning streak that began with a win against Michigan State on Jan. 31, Indiana walked out with a gut-check on what can happen when postseason play begins — and the team owned up to it postgame.
“We have to get a lot better,” senior guard Ali Patberg said. “Sadly, this is going to be a wake-up call for us, and we’re going to get better.”
The Hoosiers (18-5) relied on their defense in the first half when the offense wasn’t going, though the two often go hand-in-hand for a team that likes to push in transition.
IU forced 12 turnovers in the first half, but a combination of its own mistakes and poor shooting took Indiana into halftime with a 34-26 lead that coach Teri Moren said likely should have been larger.
“We missed too many free throws and too many layups,” Moren said. “I think we have a bigger lead at half if we just do those two fundamental things. There were times our spacing wasn’t very good. We didn’t get side-to-side attacks.”
Out of the gates in the second half, Michigan State (15-7) — led by Nia Clouden — cleaned up its own mistakes and made Indiana play catch-up.
The Spartans started the second half on a 9-0 run to take the lead, and after trading buckets, Moren says IU began to lose the composure it showed time and time again this season.
“I thought tonight we were pressing a little,” Moren said.
The Hoosiers closed the game shooting 43 percent from the field, 11-of-18 from the line with 17 turnovers — tied for the most it has had in a game this season.
Moren said she didn’t want to make excuses for her team, but she mentioned the difficulty of teams not being able to have the usual morning shootaround at the arena to adjust to the environment.
“We walk here, and we have an hour on the floor and that’s it,” Moren said. “I’m not saying that’s why we missed those, but the facility, the rim, the environment, the balls — would have been nice to spend maybe 30-35 minutes in here prior to us playing.”
Aside from Grace Berger, Indiana’s guards struggled to get into a groove throughout the game on both ends and foul trouble didn’t help. Nicole Cardano-Hillary, an uber-aggressive on-ball defender for Indiana, picked up her fourth foul midway through the third quarter while Berger, Patberg and forward Aleksa Gulbe dealt with their own foul issues as well.
That allowed Clouden to assert herself into the game, attacking the paint time after time on her way to her third 30-plus point performance of the season.
“Clouden started finding her groove and the basket probably looked a lot larger than it was because she was feeling it,” Moren said. “We didn’t have an answer for her.”
Indiana was playing in front of a pro-IU crowd of 2,500 people for the first time this season, and the energy appeared to give the Hoosiers some hope late in the game.
Trailing 57-50 out of a time out with six minutes to go, the fans began cheering and propelled an IU run led by Patberg to cut the deficit to 59-56. Patberg then got an open look from the corner to tie the game, but she came up short and the team did not have another run left in it.
“It makes me sick to my stomach that we performed like that in front of them,” Patberg said. “We had a bunch of fans show out tonight and support us. We’re thankful they were there, but frustrating how we performed for them. I can tell you we’re going to be a lot better from this. This sucks right now.”
Indiana knows where it will be headed next as the entirety of the women’s NCAA Tournament will be held in San Antonio, but where the team will sit in the bracket will be revealed on Monday. In the most recent projections before the loss, Indiana was a 3-seed.
Disappointment from failure to meet expectations in the conference tournament didn’t linger long as Moren said her squad had already discussed what it needs to do in the next week to prepare for whatever opponent lies ahead.
“There’s no doubt they’re disappointed,” Moren said. “I have one of the most competitive groups in the locker room I’ve ever had. They’re disappointed yet looking forward to what’s next.”