IU women’s basketball maturing into national power

BLOOMINGTON — New territory is how coach Teri Moren describes where her Indiana University women’s basketball team is on the national landscape.

New territory inhabiting top 10 rankings nationally. New territory striving to become the best IU team in program history. New territory in making opponents fear the multi-faceted attack the Hoosiers bring to the court.

The Seymour native, who is leading IU to unprecedented acknowledgement in the women’s college basketball world, is a farmer nurturing her crops to harvest but also is a philosopher queen of hoops.

Great, accomplished teams grow into their stature over a period of years. Great, accomplished programs are ones whose achievements are presumed year after year. Right now, the Hoosiers are in the savoring stage, at a point of development of appreciating the heights.

On Monday night, IU demolished Penn State 70-40 at Assembly Hall in the Hoosiers’ Big Ten opener. Earlier, IU was voted the 10th-best team in the land in The Associated Press poll. That was a drop from No. 6. In between, 6-2 Indiana lost to defending national champion Stanford and North Carolina State, the same team it upset in the NCAA playoffs last season. Both games were close. Neither loss was an embarrassment.

Rather, IU players came away from those courts grring, not grimacing. In both instances, they felt they let a big fish on the hook get away with the bait.

“I know that we could have and should have won,” said forward Mackenzie Holmes, high scorer against Penn State with 16 points, a game in which all five starters were in double figures.

They proved, Holmes said, “that we can compete with any team in the country.” Also instilled is the belief, “knowing that we’re one of the top teams in the country.”

It is easy to express such bravado, more difficult to justify it. This is a veteran team toughened by last season’s 21-6 pandemic campaign and a run to the Elite Eight. As Moren noted, last season registered many firsts for a program that has not had the same storied history as the men’s but is working on it.

This is a team of many weapons, Grace Berger, Ali Patberg, Nicole Cardaño-Hillary and Aleksa Gulbe, plus Holmes, who seems to be able to score on anyone in the low post, lefty or right. Two graduate students, two seniors and one junior. Losing by three to Stanford and losing touch with NC State in the fourth quarter rankled. As a sign of respect for beating the Hoosiers, NC State moved to No. 2 in the country and Stanford to No. 4. And what does that say about IU?

Moren scheduled up this year to toughen her team for the Big Ten grind, which on a regular basis will be not much different than a hike through the NCAAs. Not everyone is going to be the Nittany Lions (4-5), who had just one offensive threat in 21-point-scorer Makenna Marisa.

For a team overwhelming in its dominance of Penn State, including a 21-0 run, the Hoosiers had enough sloppy moments to provide Moren with practice talking points. Team game goals include scoring 80 points and keeping turnovers under 11. IU committed 18 turnovers.

However, Penn State was 0-for-0 from the free throw line. The Nittany Lions did not shoot a single foul shot. Moren referred to that as “uncommon.” Perhaps “stunning” would be another word.

Cardaño-Hillary, who probably burned the box score from the NC State game after uncharacteristically going 0-for-10 from the field, scored 14 points and was a significant pest on Penn State’s guards.

“The defense was a big factor,” Cardaño-Hillary said.

Indiana is one of five Big Ten teams in the top 20 with Maryland No. 8, Iowa No. 12, Michigan No. 13 and Ohio State No. 20, all of them on the schedule. IU already beat ranked Kentucky.

“We want to test ourselves against the very best,” Moren said. “They (the players) have the confidence they can play with anybody.”

And beat anybody. That’s how the Hoosiers are thinking. It’s new to be capable of thinking that way at IU, Moren said.

“Pressure,” she said “is a privilege.”

Pressure to win, she means. Pressure to perform. This group has raised fan expectations, but its own are higher. These Hoosiers want to become the IU women’s basketball team everyone remembers.