IU women’s basketball off to best Big Ten start after win over Nebraska

BLOOMINGTON — When the struggle was over and the Indiana University women’s basketball team beat back the hungry Nebraska Cornhuskers Thursday night at Assembly Hall, coach Teri Moren uttered an introspective and revealing comment.

“We’re built for this moment,” she said.

The moment of the moment was a 72-65 victory over the visiting Big Ten foe played by IU without the aid of leading scorer and rebounder Mackenzie Holmes. Holmes had a knee injury.

Yet really, the 2021-22 season is the big-picture moment. Moren’s comment could be the motto for the Hoosiers.

They are 13-2, 5-0 in the league for the first time ever, ranked sixth in the nation and coming off of an NCAA tournament Elite Eight appearance. The whole campaign is seize-the-moment mode, and the players are determined to deflect all obstacles, even an upstart Nebraska team anxious to prove its own (now) 13-3 record is no fluke.

“These kids are just built different,” Moren said of the Hoosiers. “They don’t flinch. They never think they’re out of it. (They have) just a different level of toughness. It showed tonight.”

Holmes was averaging 17.9 points and 8.2 rebounds a game before she was limping. Moren woke up Thursday to get the news Holmes couldn’t play and nor was it clear how long she would be out.

That is a big if for IU, but for one night, the Hoosiers adapted. Indiana has a top-rated starting five but does not have much depth. Moren only used six players. This time, it was enough — barely — but may not be in other demanding conference games.

IU led by as many as 17 points in the third quarter, but Nebraska rallied to within three points in the last minute. By then, IU center Aleksa Gulbe (17 points) had fouled out, and the Huskers’ big girl in the middle, Alexis Markowski (17), was powering for points down low.

Yet Grace Berger (22 points), Nicole Cardano-Hillary (13) and Ali Patberg (10) basically held things together. Nebraska dared backup Chloe Moore-McNeil to shoot, and she did and killed the Cornhuskers. Her eight points included two left-alone 3-pointers. Her new nickname is “Big Shot Chloe.”

Cardano-Hillary made some spectacular, timely plays on offense and defense in the fourth quarter, one being a steal slowing Nebraska’s offense and another being a showy, over-the-head reverse layup that was another momentum chiller.

Besides Moore-McNeil, the only other usual backup who played was Kiandra Browne, who started in place of Holmes. Cardano-Hillary said working other players into the lineup and winning without one starter has multiple positive ripple effects.

“I think we have an unselfish team, and that not only builds chemistry, but it gets us the wins,” she said.

Someone with a more critical eye might suggest the game spotlighted possible shortcomings for the long road ahead and the goal of reaching the Final Four. One prominent player was out with injury, and another fouled out in crunch time. Yes, the Hoosiers scraped by for the win, but how many times can they employ that formula against top teams?

The only games IU has lost this season are to highly ranked Stanford and North Carolina State. IU also beat Maryland, another elite team.

The Hoosiers are doing this with five double-figure scorers, Holmes, Berger, Patberg, Cardano-Hillary and Gulbe. They also are doing it with, as Moren put it, character and toughness, impressive and important intangibles. They stay unruffled when there is adversity and carry a deeply embedded confidence into big games because of what they have accomplished.

Yet they also are aware the season is barely half over. They are seeking a regular-season Big Ten title and a long run in the NCAAs. So when the players talk about wins, they don’t sound impressed with themselves.

The 5-0 conference start is great, Cardano-Hillary said. A nice first for the program, a little piece of history.

“We’re not satisfied yet,” she said.

They also may be learning along the way there is a very thin line between authoring big history and little history.

Lew Freedman is a sports writer for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected]